It has been a trend around baseball lately, but the Oakland A's haven't made a habit of promoting their top starting pitching prospects and using them out of the bullpen. They made an exception earlier this week when hurler Sonny Gray got the call. Gray made his major-league debut on Wednesday, tossing two scoreless innings of relief in Pittsburgh.
"It was a little bit of an adjustment, but once I got in the game I just treated it like every inning and tried to get people out as quickly as possible," Gray said.
After starting all year for Triple-A Sacramento, Gray accumulated an 8-5 record, 2.81 ERA and 3.15 K:BB rate. His efforts earned him recognition as the Pacific Coast League's top starting pitcher as he was named the starter for the Triple-A All-Star game. But he won't make it to Reno to represent the PCL this week. Instead he'll be in Oakland helping the A's battle for a second-straight division crown.
"I was very surprised," Gray said of his promotion. "It was an incredible feeling to know that hard work's paid off and you're going to come up and be a part of the team. It was just a really special moment."
Talented young arms such as Chris Sale, David Price and Lance Lynn all began their major league careers as relievers with an eye on starting in the future. And while the A's have graduated a number of promising starting pitchers to the major leagues in recent seasons, they have all been plugged directly into the starting rotation and not the bullpen.
In his first relief appearance since pitching for Vanderbilt in 2010, Gray struck-out three and sailed through two innings against the Pirates, holders of one of the best records in the National League.
"Especially for his first time, you expect a little jitters, maybe he'll be a little erratic. He was very, very good," catcher Derek Norris said. "Pittsburgh's got a very good lineup with very good hitters. He breezed through them like he knew everything about them and what he was going to do."
With the way Oakland's schedule plays out over the next couple weeks with the All-Star break ahead, the team was afforded the luxury of adding an extra arm to the bullpen because there isn't a need for another starting pitcher until July 23. The A's front office clearly believed there was little else for Gray to accomplish in Triple-A. They used their free roster spot to get Gray's feet wet in the big leagues after sending down starter Dan Straily to stay sharp in Sacramento's rotation.
After a rain delay of nearly three hours on Wednesday, the A's found themselves down 5-0 on a nightmare getaway day and turned to Gray in the sixth inning. The low-leverage situation was the perfect opportunity to give the right-hander his first major league test drive. He took advantage and impressed beyond his pitching line, showing the command issues that plagued him in the minor leagues might be a thing of the past.
"He impressed to the point where we could use him in any situation," manager Bob Melvin said about the 23-year-old former first-round draft pick.
"It didn't look like he was nervous about anything. First pitch of the game was 96 and strike. He threw all his pitches. So therefore, depending on a particular day and who's available, we're certainly not opposed to using him in a plus game in an important situation.
"He's got a lot of energy and at times the command can be an issue when you're like that especially when you're in your first big league opportunity. But he wasn't. The command was really good in Triple-A and that's the one we thought he needed to work in the last couple of years and he's done that. Very impressive kid and we'd use him in any particular role."
It was just one outing, but given the A's bullpen struggles of late, there's reason to believe Gray might find himself pitching in key situations going forward. If he continues to throw well, the club will decide whether or not to add him to the rotation when the empty turn comes up later or keep him in the bullpen for the stretch run.
"I think he can go either way. From what he showed me here [in Sacramento], he could be a quality starter," Triple-A Sacramento pitching coach and former A's bullpen coach Rick Rodriguez said. "Obviously he's got an outstanding fastball and curveball. He could be a dominant reliever if that's the role that is chosen for him."
Gray said he prefers to start, but has no problem relieving in the meantime. For some, a relief role allows pitchers to reach back for more velocity on their fastball or put more torque on their breaking pitches.
"I didn't really try to do anything different. I didn't try to throw hard or make my curveball different," Gray said. "I just tried to do what I've been doing all year."
The A's will have a tough decision to make with current closer Grant Balfour this winter. He has converted his last 42 saves going back to last season, breaking Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley's mark of 40 for the A's team record. Balfour is in the last year of his contract with Oakland and might have put himself outside the A's price range with his outstanding season.
If Balfour does leave in free agency, he will leave a massive hole in the back end of the A's bullpen. Although Gray might be more valuable to the team as a starter in the long run, he might have the most explosive stuff of anyone in the organization outside of Brett Anderson and could be a good closer given his outstanding fastball-curveball combination.
"He's very competitive out there, he wants to win, beat the hitter," Rodriguez said.
"I'm sure he'd be the same way as a reliever, whether he's a set-up guy or a closer. It's the same mindset. He's got outstanding stuff and wherever he winds up he's going to be good."