Is Sonny Gray in the Athletics long-term plans?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few years, the Oakland Athletics have developed a reputation for trading established impact players away. At one time, the A’s had a string of 14 consecutive winning months — a franchise record — but times have changed.

Gone are the likes of AL MVP Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Jeff Samardzija, and others. With so many prominent players dealt in a rather short amount of time dating back to 2014, it’s only natural that trade rumors will surround Oakland’s young ace, Sonny Gray, as well.

The A’s have remained adamant to this point that Gray isn’t available. But if the A’s could trade away Donaldson, who was blossoming into an MVP-type player in Oakland, and then reached the summit in Toronto, it’s pretty clear they don’t operate with “untouchables.” This makes Gray’s case especially interesting.

Young, controllable pitching is the most valuable asset in all of baseball. It’s why the Miami Marlins have such a high asking price for Jose Fernandez. It’s why the Dodgers aren’t interested in trading Clayton Kershaw, or the Giants aren’t interested in trading Madison Bumgarner.

The A’s, though, are different.

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports examined Gray’s outlook in Oakland, and Rosenthal made a good point. Rosenthal notes that after 2016, Gray will enter his first year of arbitration. Even for the cash-strapped A’s, Gray will be affordable at that point. But what about beyond next year?

One of the reasons given for trading Donaldson to Toronto, is that his salary was due to escalate in the coming seasons. While that was a problem for the Athletics, Toronto gladly took on the obligation of paying Donaldson. Gray is likely in a similar position.

Gray is just 26 years-old, and is currently under team control through 2020. The A’s can request a fortune in return for their ace, and they know it. It just hasn’t happened yet. In time, though, history suggests it will.

There’s already interest in Gray, and if the A’s make it known he’s available, there’s no telling how many teams will inquire. The Red Sox were especially persistent after the 2015 season, going as far as to call Oakland the day after the World Series ended, to check if Gray was on the trade block.

That may seem urgent by the Red Sox, but it’s actually smart. Boston was told Gray wasn’t available, but there is a precedent here. When Toronto initially expressed interest in Donaldson, Oakland said he wasn’t available. Except Toronto didn’t take “no” for an answer. Then-general manager Alex Anthopoulos kept calling the A’s, and eventually a deal was made. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that something similar occurs with Gray.

It may seem crazy to trade Gray, who finished third in the AL Cy Young race in 2015, going 14-7 with a 2.73 ERA in 31 starts. But because the A’s are rarely players in free agency, this is how they operate. This is how they choose to replenish their system, and add parts to the Major League roster.

While the season is young, the A’s are off to a good start, at 10-8. Until Saturday, when Oakland lost 9-3 at Toronto, the A’s had been undefeated on the road. If the A’s continue to play winning ball, Gray likely finishes the 2016 season in Oakland. Then, in the offseason, when the Red Sox or another team calls, perhaps Oakland has a different outlook, with Gray’s salary set to rise.

Gray may pitch another year or two for the A’s, but Oakland rarely keeps their homegrown players all the way up until free agency. The smart move for the A’s would be to extend Gray, but seeing as the most expensive contract the A’s have ever given out was $66 million to Eric Chavez in 2004, the prospects of keeping Gray beyond his first contract are not good.

And rather than taking the chance that Gray departs as a free agent in just over three years, the A’s will likely deal their ace before then.

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