In a pitching-rich crop of draft-eligible prospects, Vanderbilt's Sonny Gray was considered one of the top collegiate right-handers available. So when he was still on the board at 18, the Oakland A's jumped at the opportunity to take a pitcher they had been following since he was pitching for Smyrna High School in Tennessee.
"We had a lot of interest in him at that time [when Gray was draft-eligible out of high school]. We followed him throughout the three years of his college career," A's Director of Scouting Eric Kubota said in a press conference shortly after the A's made their first round selection.
Gray has spent three years at Vanderbilt, where he stars for the Commodores. In three seasons, Gray has won 21 games. This season, he went 11-3 with a 2.01 ERA and 115 strike-outs in 107.2 innings during the regular season. Gray and the Commodores are currently slated to appear in the Super Regionals as they bid for a spot in the College World Series in Omaha.
Being part of a winning team is nothing new for Gray, who has been praised by scouts and coaches for his competitiveness. Gray said in a telephone press conference on Monday that he traces his competitive nature back to his youth.
"I got used to winning. It's hard to stop winning once you get used to it," Gray told reporters.
The A's were drawn to Gray in part because of that mental toughness, which has drawn comparisons from scouts to that of another smallish right-hander who the A's drafted out of a southern school, Tim Hudson.
"We've gotten to know [Gray] over the years and he's got incredible gumption and fortitude. He's not going to back down from any situation. He's not afraid of anything," Kubota said.
"He's pitched on the international stage the last couple of years. He's going to go out and he's going to everything he can on any given day to get you out."
Gray wasn't drafted solely on his character, however. The A's love his pitching repertoire. According to Scout.com's National Baseball Expert Frankie Piliere, Gray's fastball ranks among the best in the draft class.
"Gray is the owner of a power fastball, and has one of the best feels for that fastball of any arm in this draft class. He cruises along at 92-95 mph, and can crank it up to 96-97 mph when he needs it," Piliere wrote in his pre-draft scouting report of Gray (full text plus video of Gray can be found here.)
"He's also willing to take a couple ticks off now and then to create more movement."
Gray's best pitch might be his curveball, however. Kubota called it "a weapon for him…a swing-and-miss pitch" and Piliere described it as "a true plus pitch for Gray that is a plus-plus offering on occasion."
Kubota also noted that Gray has a developing change-up that the A's had seen be "really good for him at times." The A's have always emphasized the change-up when developing their pitchers, especially their starters. Gray told reporters during the press conference that he is continuing to gain confidence in his change-up.
With his combination of plus stuff and plus make-up, Gray was in the discussion for the top-10 picks in the draft on many mock draft boards. Because of his height (he is listed at 5'11'') and questions about whether his delivery would lead to injuries down-the-road, however, he fell in some mock drafts. There were also questions as to whether Gray profiled best as a starter or a reliever. Kubota said that Gray would be developed as a starter.
The A's are not concerned about Gray's height or his delivery.
"[The delivery is] something that we've seen out of him over the years. We think he has actually toned it down some since high school. He knows how to make that delivery work for him and we're not really concerned with the delivery with him at all."
Although the A's are pitching-rich in the big leagues, they are relatively thin in terms of high impact starting pitching prospects at the moment. Given that weakness, Gray fits an organizational need, although Kubota was careful to point out that they didn't draft for need.
"Sonny was the best available guy on the board when we picked," Kubota said.
"But I think you can always use more pitching.
"He was extremely decorated and he has very, very good stuff across the board. We are thrilled he is here."
Gray is also excited about the possibility of joining the A's.
"There is a great history of developing pitchers [in Oakland] and that's exciting," Gray said.
Although Gray is excited about the possibility of turning pro – stating that pitching in the summer has been a dream of his for a long time – he isn't thinking about the next step just yet.
"We have the Super Regionals next week, so I want to focus on Vanderbilt for a while," Gray said.
The last pitcher the A's selected in the first round was another collegiate right-hander, James Simmons. Simmons signed quickly with Oakland and made his professional debut at the Double-A level. Kubota didn't indicate as to whether the A's would use a similar development plan with Gray.
"To be perfectly honest, we haven't talked about [where he might start] at all, but he certainly is an advanced college pitcher," Kubota said.
"We are extremely excited about Sonny Gray."