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Athletics Need Sonny Gray To Show Off Masterful Curveball

By Rich Arleo

CBS Local Sports, in our “30 Players 30 Days” spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.

Sonny Gray, Starting Pitcher, Oakland Athletics

2013 season (minors): 20 G, 118.1 IP, 3.42 ERA, 1.318 WHIP, 10 W, 118 SO, 39 BB

2013 season (majors): 12 G, 64 IP, 2.67 ERA, 1.109 WHIP, 5 W, 67 SO, 20 BB

Billy Beane, ever since he took over as general manager of the Oakland Athletics in the early 90s, has had a clear plan with starting pitching. The team stockpiles young arms to develop a number of front-line starting pitchers.

From the big three -- Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito -- to Rich Harden and others, Beane has often been able to solidify his rotation through the farm system. Last season, fans caught a glimpse of the next crop growing in the minors, and the best of the bunch is 24-year-old right-hander Sonny Gray.

A first-round selection by the A’s (No. 18 overall) in 2011, Gray joined the organization with plenty of hype. He played only one game in Rookie ball before moving on to Double-A. There he allowed just one run while striking out 18 in 20 innings (five starts).

The following season didn’t go quite as smoothly, however. Gray struggled with control and was hit hard at Double-A Midland in 2012. He started 26 games that season and finished with an ugly 1.421 WHIP and 4.26 ERA in 152 innings, managing just 99 strikeouts (5.9 K/9). Despite the struggles, he did get one start in Triple-A that year, and it wasn’t good (10 hits, four earned runs in four innings).

It appeared Gray was pretty far off from making his major league debut. The organization was still confident enough to start him in Triple-A, and he managed to turn a corner. Gray improved his command and vastly increased his strikeout rate. The A’s gave him a taste of major league action in July, and he delivered two impressive relief appearances, striking out six and allowing just two hits in four shutout innings.

Gray was sent back to Triple-A before coming back to make his first start on Aug. 10. That began an impressive run that not only launched his big league career, but also helped the A’s secure the A.L. West.

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Gray made 10 starts for the A’s during the stretch run to finish out the season, looking better than he did at any point during his time in the minors. Six of those were quality starts, and he allowed more than two earned runs in a game just twice. He also showed off the ability to put away hitters, striking out at least seven in six different games.

Gray is primarily a fastball-curveball pitcher. According to PITCHf/x data, he threw a four-seam fastball 50.5 percent of the time, which clocked in at an average of 93.2 MPH. He featured his curveball 26 percent of the time. That was his put-away pitch and was worth an incredible 8.7 runs above average last season. Hitters swung and missed at strikes thrown by Gray 9.5 percent of the time, a rate that would put him among the top pitchers in the league over the course of a season.

It all clicked for Gray in the bigs last year, and he enters 2014 with an important spot in the rotation. Fellow homegrown hurler Jarrod Parker will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the entire season. Meanwhile, A.J. Griffin is out for at least a month and Scott Kazmir hasn't been 100 percent this spring either. The A's will need to lean on Gray -- already in the spotlight -- even more than expected this season.

Next up: Jurickson Profar, Texas Rangers

Check out our Fantasy Baseball Preview, breaking down the top players at each position.

Rich Arleo is a Marist College alum who has been a professional writer and editor since graduating in 2010. Find him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ for more of his sports musings.

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