PHOENIX -- Sonny Douglas Gray looks relatively unimposing at 5-11, 200 pounds, but the Oakland Athletics have no reservations about throwing expectations his way. The last time Gray appeared on a national stage, he was going head-to-head with Detroit’s Justin Verlander in the American League Division Series -- twice. The A’s won the first matchup and lost the second, while Gray displayed impressive poise, a mid-90s fastball and a curveball with a flat-out nasty disposition.
Gray was so oblivious to the notion that he should be nervous taking on one of baseball’s brand names in October, it was easy to overlook the feeble excuse for a mustache that he tried to cultivate in the postseason.
"Maybe it worked for him, but he took a little bit of heat for it," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. "He looks like he’s 15 years old."
As the Athletics prepare to make a run at their third straight AL West title, they’re betting heavily on youthful exuberance.
Gray, 24, could step forward as the resident staff ace. Or maybe it will be Jarrod Parker, who just turned 25 in November. Regardless of who emerges, it’s clear the A’s adhere to the old Jim Leyland mantra that talent trumps experience just about every time.
Throw A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone into the mix, along with veteran Scott Kazmir, and the A’s have five potential starters who aren't even eligible for salary arbitration yet. It’s enough to make general manager Billy Beane flash back 14 years, when Michael Lewis was best known for writing "Liar's Poker" and Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito had yet to be labeled the "Big Three."
“We were fighting for the division in 2000 and somebody asked me if we could win with young pitchers and I said, ‘I’d rather have young talented pitchers than old talented pitchers,'" Beane said. “Being in Oakland, in a market like ours, you grow up pretty quick, and you have other guys who are lockering next to you who've had to go through the same thing. I think there’s a real camaraderie knowing your age really doesn't matter here. Sonny Gray started Game 5 [of the Division Series] and he didn't come up until August. Talent rules out."
This isn't the first time the A’s have been euphoric over a stockpile of arms since the end of the Big Three era. In 2011, the contingent of Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy and Dallas Braden was billed as a rotation for the long haul. But the first three members of that group have since been traded, McCarthy left for Arizona as a free agent in 2012 and Braden officially retired in January with a shredded left shoulder.
Beane and assistant GM David Forst did a nimble job assembling a promising new rotation. It’s headed by Gray, a former first-round pick out of Vanderbilt, and Parker, who came over from Arizona in the Cahill trade in December 2011.
If the two young righties share an attribute, it’s the ability to leave the crowd noise and other distractions behind and focus on the catcher’s mitt, regardless of the circumstances.
“They’re both really mature and they believe in their stuff," A’s catcher Stephen Vogt said. “Both of them are pretty stoic people, and that helps them out when they get into the moment, so to speak. They don’t panic. They keep their composure and stay under control and kind of harness the pressure that a lot of young guys might feel.
“I caught Sonny all year in Triple-A and I caught him in the playoffs, and he was the same guy whether it was a day game in the minor leagues or a playoff game in the big leagues. Every time he takes the mound, he’s ready to win."
Although scouts have softened on the age-old bias against short, right-handed pitchers thanks to the success of Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Roy Oswalt, Tom Gordon, Tim Lincecum and numerous others, Gray still engendered some doubts among personnel people who thought he might be best-suited for a role in the bullpen. That perception stemmed partly from his size, as well as the need for him to develop a third pitch to complement his fastball and curve.
Gray has apparently conquered that hurdle. According to FanGraphs, he threw his changeup 7.2 percent of the time last season, which was enough to let hitters know it was in his arsenal. Gray throws his fastball at an average of 93 mph, his changeup at 86 and his curve at 79, so he maintains enough of a gap to keep opposing lineups off-balance.
To this point, Gray has also shown he can handle a workload. He threw 195 innings last year between Triple-A Sacramento, the regular season and the playoffs in Oakland, and the A’s are ready to turn him loose sans restrictions. Gray spent the offseason working out in Nashville with David Price, Mike Minor, Pedro Alvarez and Mike Baxter, fellow Vanderbilt Commodore alums, and fully expects to pitch 200-plus innings this season.
While Vogt refers to Gray as stoic, Melvin prefers the word “tenacious." Gray was a talented football quarterback in high school and showed the mental toughness and work ethic to take his athletic pursuits to a whole new level after his father, Jessie, died in a car accident during his freshman year.
“I've always been a really confident guy," Gray said. “I was brought up that way. The main thing for me is, it’s really fun to take the mound and compete. However it plays out in the end is how it plays out."
In the big picture, Beane concedes the A’s were fortunate that Gray fell to them with the 18th overall pick in 2011, just as the St. Louis Cardinals had to be thankful Michael Wacha lasted until the 19th selection a year later. If Oakland’s front office should be commended for anything, it’s having the foresight to pick Griffin in the 13th round of the draft and Straily in the 24th.
“Those are the guys who really make your organization," Beane said. “The Sonny Grays are easy."
Not to mention extremely fun to watch. Pay no attention to those 64 innings on Gray’s big league résumé. When it comes to building a staff, talent rules out.