Minnesota Twins reliever Jeff Gray hasn’t had an easy road to the major leagues. The right-hander was a 32nd round pick of the Oakland A’s in 2004 and he moved slowly, but steadily, through the A’s system before making his big league debut in 2008. Since that time, Gray has pitched in four big league seasons for four different major league clubs – the A’s, the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox and the Seattle Mariners.
Last season, Gray hit another milestone, spending the entire year at the big league level for the first time. He began the year in the White Sox’s bullpen and posted a 2.70 ERA in 13.1 innings before he was caught in a roster crunch and placed on waivers. Gray was picked up by the Mariners and he would spend the rest of the year in the Seattle bullpen. In 35 innings pitched, he posted a 4.89 ERA with one save.
This off-season, Gray was placed on waivers by the Mariners and was claimed by the Minnesota Twins. He is expected to help set-up late-inning relievers Matt Capps and Glenn Perkins in 2012. A hard thrower, Gray is a groundball pitcher who induced five double-plays last season and has a career 1.14 groundball-to-flyball ratio.
Gray pitched collegiately at Southwest Missouri State, now known as Missouri State University. During his three years at the school, he was teammates with fellow future major leaguers Ryan Howard, Shaun Marcum, Brad Ziegler and Brett Sinkbeil and was part of the 2003 team that made it to the final eight in the College World Series.
We recently caught-up with Gray to find out how he was preparing for his fifth big league organization and more…
ScoutMLB: What are you looking forward to joining a new organization and what are your expectations for the upcoming season?
Jeff Gray: This season is going to be exciting because the Twins had a tough time with injuries last year and their bullpen kind of struggled during the year. I’m really excited to be part of the bullpen with [Glenn] Perkins and [Matt] Capps and to try to get this bullpen and the team on the right road and get them back into a winning season and maybe into the playoffs.
ScoutMLB: What kind of adjustments do you have to make when you join a new organization? I know you have been with a few the past couple of years now. Is it something where you try to find someone you know in the organization ahead of reporting or is it just a situation where you get to know people as you start out with everyone?
JG: Knowing people when you go into a new clubhouse makes for a little more of a comfortable situation. But you still have to do your same job. If you go out there and throw strikes and get people out, you’ll fit right in. I have found that out the past couple of years that it helps to know people but you often have to join a team on the run and meet people as you go. It’s easiest when you win ballgames with everybody.
ScoutMLB: You are one of a small set of players who have had an opportunity to play for both Chicago teams. What was it like to play on the North and South sides of Chicago?
JG: It was quite an eye-opener. You have two different types of fans and two different types of pressure. Chicago is a great place to play. Both areas want to win and it has been great to see both sides [of the rivalry]. There is pressure with the Cubs to win because of their history, but it is the same with the White Sox. They want to win just as badly. It was good to have been able to see both sides and feel the pressure there. It was a good experience to have been able to play there. They are really die-hard fans who love the game of baseball.
ScoutMLB: How was it to play for [former White Sox and current Marlins manager] Ozzie Guillen?
JG: You know, I liked Ozzie. Ozzie is a great coach. As long as you play hard and play the game right, he’ll tell you how it is and he’ll keep putting you in there. With him, it’s just those two things – playing hard and playing right. He has some fire in him. It’s always great to see that and I think it rubs off on the team from time-to-time. It was a lot of fun to play under him.
ScoutMLB: Last year was your first opportunity to spend an entire year up in the big leagues. How different was your experience being able to stay in the big leagues and not shuttle back-and-forth between Triple-A?
JG: Well, it was really nice. [laughs] It was different. It was a little more comfortable. You could get in a rhythm and stay in a rhythm there instead of having to pitch and wonder if you were going to stay there or not. To have that whole year under my belt, you learn that it’s a long season. With all of the travel and stuff like that, it’s a little taxing at times, but it was a great experience to have finally. The biggest thing, like I said, was just being able to get into a rhythm and really enjoy the game of baseball and enjoy the fans and enjoy the sites. It was quite an experience.
ScoutMLB: Do you have a favorite ballpark that you have pitched in now?
JG: I haven’t pitched in all of them yet, but some of the ones I really like are, for one, Seattle. That’s a pitcher’s park. You’ve got to love that one. I’ve always liked Anaheim. That’s always such a great field and a great atmosphere. I do like Target Field. It is a very, very pretty field on the inside. You’ve got to like New York and Fenway and Wrigley just because of the history.
ScoutMLB: You had a chance to earn your first major league save last year with Seattle. Did you get a chance to keep the game ball?
JG: No, actually I didn’t. I had the ball in my hand, but, to be honest with you, I didn’t even think about it being the first save of my career. I had the ball and we had a rookie who had pitched and it was his first game, so I flipped the ball to him and said, ‘hell of a game.’ After the game, I finally realized that it was my first save of my career in the big leagues when the reporters came up and asked ‘so how do you feel about that being your first save?’ [laughs]
It was a big deal, but I’ve saved some games in the minor leagues. It was really cool to be able to give [Anthony] Vasquez the ball for his first game, that he earned the win. It was a good feeling to be a part of that.
ScoutMLB: What is your preparation like going into this season?
JG: It’s really the same as last year. I thought last year that I was really well prepared and on my game. Staying healthy more than anything and trying to get my body ready. This year, I’m really focusing on my command more than anything else. I’m really trying to focus on being able to spot every pitch every time. As that goes on, trying to stay healthy and be strong for the whole year. That was pretty much what I did last year and it seemed to work. We’ll see if that can work and if I can keep that going.
ScoutMLB: What are you feeling like your best pitches are right now?
JG: It has always been my sinker. That’s my bread-and-butter, but the thing that showed up last year that really helped me out was my change-up. It’s kind of a little hard right now. I’m trying to slow it down. But I’m hoping that pitch stays with me for next year because that really threw some of the hitters off, especially since most of them think I’m more of a power guy, a sinker-slider guy. Hopefully I’ll have that in my back pocket for years to come.
ScoutMLB: That’s a pitch you had been working on for awhile right?
JG: I’ve had it forever, but I’ve never really had to bring it out. When you are out there for one inning or two innings, you can get away with only two or three types of pitches. And I threw it some earlier in my career, but it would only be in certain situations. But with some of these hitters, they are really prepared and really good. You’ve got to mix it up more than ever. It’s good to have that now to the point where I enjoy throwing it in certain counts to keep them off-guard.
ScoutMLB: After seven or eight spring trainings in Arizona, you will be heading to Florida for the first time this February. What are you expecting from playing in Florida this year?
JG: We will find out. I have been very lucky and have stayed in Arizona for a long time. It will be a great experience to go out there and see what the Florida side is. I’ve heard stories about it and I have heard the travel isn’t as good as it is here in Phoenix, but you still have a lot of great competition out there and a lot of great golf courses. So I’m excited about that.
ScoutMLB: You probably won’t have a chance to face your old college teammate Ryan Howard out there since he’ll still be rehabbing?
JG: Well hopefully his Achilles tendon will be healed up and he’ll be ready to have just as good as season as he did last year. He’d be fun to face. The ones I’m not looking forward to facing are the Yankees. We seem to pitch against them [in the spring] a lot. I like to keep things a surprise against them.
ScoutMLB: Do you ever think back to that college team with Southwest Missouri State? It’s obviously not a high-profile program like a Miami or a Texas, but you guys churned out a number of major leaguers.
JG: I still stay in contact with the coaches and I still talk to [Brad] Ziegler and to [Ryan] Howard and some of those guys. It’s fun to look back and look at the team that we had. It was really a hodgepodge of talent. There was so much talent on the field that no one even knew about with us. With that run [to the College World Series], it really opened eyes to what Southwest Missouri State – now known as Missouri State – can bring in.
Especially with Missouri there and Arkansas really close, there’s a lot of talent coming out of the Missouri area. It’s fun to see that the big schools still can produce, but some of the little schools can still keep up. That’s exactly what we were. We were a Cinderella story that could keep up. Unfortunately, we went 0-and-2 and I didn’t have a chance to throw in it but that’s how baseball is. But I was there [in the College World Series] and I was happy to be a part of that team. It’s great to see what has come out of there and is still coming out of there.