In early February, the St. Louis Cardinals signed young ace Carlos Martinez to a five year extension, guaranteeing him $51 million. Though it is the largest contract ever offered a first year arbitration-eligible pitcher, the Cardinals achieved some cost certainty during his arbitration years and also bought out two years of free agency. As an added bonus, they have team options good for an additional two years of control. That means the Cardinals could conceivably have control of him until 2023, or in more practical terms, another Batman reboot.
The Colorado Rockies have their own superhero in the making in the form of Jon Gray. Our Gray Ghost is only two months older than Martinez and has already experienced quite a bit of success in his brief tenure, highlighted by the most dominating complete-game shutout in Rockies history. As a top draft pick, he’s lived up to his pedigree. However, the harmful aura of Coors Field drives fear into the hearts of any top-flight starter, so it is worth exploring whether the Rockies should offer Gray an extension right now.
But before we get there, do we know if Gray would deign to accept the offer? Pitching is a risky business, even for mere mortals. The injury factor is a huge concern and there’s a chance that ineffectiveness hurts the Rockies’ performance and dampens their hopes with that first contract. While it makes sense for Gray to maximize the value of his electric slider and blazing fastball on the open market, he doesn’t need super vision to glance around the clubhouse to count teammates who had Tommy John surgery and have had other health concerns.
Gray is the future rotation stalwart, the most talented pitcher on the team right now, and he should be proud of his accomplishments so far. His performance, at least, suggests that he’s worth opening up the checkbook for.
Gray improved significantly since he was a fledgling flamethrower, lowering his WHIP from 1.623 in 2015 to 1.262 in 2016 and improving his strikeout rate from 8.9 K/9 to 9.9 K/9. His other rate stats, HR/9 and BB/9, have held steady while he saw a drop in 2016 in his hits per nine innings. All that effort was good for a 2.3 WAR over 168 innings in 2016, his first full season in the majors. For comparison’s sake, Gray’s 2016 was virtually identical to Carlos Martinez’s, matching the Cardinals’ young star in FIP (3.60) and BB/9 (3.2), with Gray getting an edge in strikeouts while Martinez threw 27 more innings.
Sure, there were a few warning signs. In his rookie year, Gray’s kryptonite was pitch efficiency; he struggled to get through five innings in fewer than 100 pitches. He started the 2016 season on the disabled list and his first two April starts were pretty unkind as he gave up 16 hits in 81⁄3 innings. Once he settled down though, Gray was good from May through July. Yet after posting an ERA of 1.89 and a WHIP of 1.080 in July, he got hit hard in August and September, yielding an ERA of 5.86 and a WHIP of 1.472 over that time period. His BB/9 and HR/9 during those months remained in line with his season numbers, though his H/9 spiked upwards in that late time period, indicating he didn’t lose much effectiveness despite the gnarly ERA.
Generally, it’s the type of thing that can be chalked up to bad luck on balls in play and those balls going into that fall’s Story-less patchwork defense might be the culprit. No need to retcon it though. Based on the rate stats and the ability he showed in being more efficient with his pitches, it portends more success in the future for Gray.
The Rockies should be pleased with that success and a tip of the cap to General Manager Jeff Bridich, who remained patient to make sure Gray developed correctly. After seeing former first-round pitching prospects flame out in less than a blaze of glory, it’s reassuring to know that Gray has shown not only that he can succeed but can adapt, which bodes well for future comic book sequels.
But is Jon Gray worthy of an extension similar to Carlos Martinez’s?
Yes, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things to consider.
You see, there is a stark difference between Carlos Martinez and Jon Gray. Though both pitchers would’ve been eligible for free agency in 2022, Martinez made his debut at age 21. Since then, he’s had appearances in four different seasons under his belt as well as two full seasons as a starter. Gray hasn’t been fighting crime quite that long.
This scenario is also somewhat different than the early Rockies tenure of Nolan Arenado, who started racking up Gold Gloves before he got bit by a radioactive workout and became “The Dude.” There were discussions among some, shortly after the San Diego Padres gave Jedd Gyorko an extension, that Arenado should get a contract before his bat and his value exploded. Others preached patience and, unfortunately, the Rockies may end up paying for that now. There isn’t as much of a worry with Gray. As good as he is, he already has a heck of a lot of value and on the chance he happens to win a Cy Young, it’s doubtful his value would double like Arenado’s has.
Yet, Arenado’s situation still applies. The longer the Rockies wait, the closer the lure of free agency becomes, increasing the chances that Gray departs. Unfortunately, though Jeff Bridich has shown a talent for developing pitchers, he doesn’t have Lex Luthor’s cloning acumen. So if Gray leaves, he won’t be easy to replace. It is hard for any team to attract young pitchers, and even more challenging for the Rockies. Any young pitcher who hits the market is looking for his first big pay day. Sure, it’s possible the Rockies could outbid competitors. However, pitchers generally have careers longer than that first contract and signing to play at Coors just to watch their offerings fly over the Bridich Barrier won’t help their future value. The Rockies also have seen Gray dominate at Coors, where any external pitcher would still be a bit of an unknown quantity—though I doubt a secret decoder ring would’ve helped Kyle Kendrick.
But Gray doesn’t need those gimmicks because he is the best pitcher to come through the Rockies’ farm system since Ubaldo Jiménez. Soon enough, the Rockies will need to make a choice on whether to extend the Gray Ghost or risk losing him to an arch enemy. That extension should give the Rockies control for as many years of free agency as possible, whether through guaranteed dollars or team options. The last thing I want to read about is Gray, on the mound, throwing a complete game to win the World Series for the Giants every even-numbered year. I, ugh...
Let’s not think of that. Good will always triumph over evil, right? Excelsior!