With Jarrod Parker, Dan Straily, A.J. Cole, A.J. Griffin and Brad Peacock no longer in the Oakland A's minor league system, the A's minor league starting pitching depth has taken a significant hit over the last 12 months. Despite those losses, the A's aren't without starting pitching talent, however. Right-hander Sonny Gray leads the current crop of A's minor league starting pitching prospects as the top pitching prospect in the system.
Gray, the A's first-round pick in 2011, is starting the season with Triple-A Sacramento in just his second full season as a professional. He was aggressively placed in Double-A after dominating the SEC at Vanderbilt University in 2011. Gray proved he could handle the stiff competition by allowing just one run in his first 20 innings.
Coming into 2012, there were high expectations surrounding Gray, with some talk that he would make the jump from Double-A to the big leagues. Gray tried to do too much, according to coaches, while his Midland teammates Griffin and Straily made that climb to the big leagues.
Admittedly, Gray's season was a struggle. He had a 4.14 ERA in 28 starts in the Texas League before earning a promotion to Sacramento for the final week of the season.
"He had a tendency to kind of rush out and overthrow and not keep a good tempo in his delivery," River Cats' pitching coach Rick Rodriguez said.
"We're just trying to soften his delivery a little bit, trying to get more command on his four-seam fastball and little bit more command on his breaking ball. He's got quality pitches; we're just looking to put it all together.
"We were just trying to reign him in a little bit and show him that he doesn't need to be that explosive out there to get good quality pitches."
Although Gray is a power pitcher, he will never be confused with Matt Cain. Generously listed at 5'11'', Gray's build is more reminiscent of former A's ace Tim Hudson, and like Hudson, Gray is a groundball pitcher. But instead of Hudson's heavy forkball, it's Gray's curveball that he's able to use as a quality out-pitch and to steal a strike early in the count.
"You look at his stuff and it's obviously quality major-league stuff," Rodriguez said. "He needs to learn to put it all together. He could be a top of the rotation guy and be there for a very long time."
This year, Gray said he felt much more comfortable during the spring and that he is right where he wants to be mechanically. In his first outing away from Arizona, Gray threw five innings with seven strikeouts while facing the minimum, in a scrimmage against High-A Stockton.
"It was a lot better going into your second spring training knowing what to expect and knowing how the season plays out. The spring went really, really well," Gray said.
"Last year was my first professional experience and the beginning of the year there were some ups and downs and not really knowing what to expect."
New River Cats manager Steve Scarsone was Gray's skipper with Midland last year and saw him struggle with the mechanical adjustments that led to 57 walks in 148 innings. Scarsone likened Gray's ability to throw his pitches a variety of ways in different counts to another former pupil, Straily.
"It's actually been pretty cool to see him go from the gun-slinger in college and trying to apply that into the professional game and then our pitching coaches trying to refine it," Scarsone said.
Much of Gray's promise lies in his ability to induce groundballs. His fastball generally sits in the low-to-mid-90s while he has been able to vary the speeds on his plus curveball. If he's able to harness his command and improve on his 1.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio, he could very well find himself in the major leagues at some point this summer.
The right-hander opens the season as Sacramento's No. 4 starter. From that spot in the rotation, Gray could slide right into the back-end of the A's rotation, should one of the A's starters falter or succumb to injury. For now, he finds himself behind Straily and the veteran Bartolo Colon on the organizational depth chart.