PHOENIX (AP) — Sonny Gray was a non-roster invitee to the Oakland Athletics spring training camp last year, overshadowed by older and more proven players.
This spring, despite being just 5-foot-11, Gray is the one being looked up to.
That's what happens after a rookie season in which Gray was 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA.
"To be part of the plan is exciting," Gray said before the A's took to the practice fields for their first workout Saturday.
The 24-year-old right-hander has never made a Cactus League start. He pitched just six innings of relief a year ago before being was sent to Triple-A Sacramento to begin the season.
But Gray established himself late in the year with an impressive 64-inning debut, then an outstanding postseason in which he made two starts, including Game 5 of the division series. He is expected to help anchor Oakland's rotation this season as the A's seek a third straight American League West title.
The A's possess pitching depth, both in major league camp and in their minor league system, and Gray inserted himself into the 2014 plan with the way he finished 2013.
Armed with a mid-90s fastball and often overpowering curveball, the former first-round draft pick gave up more than two runs just twice in 12 major league outings — 10 starts — last year. His performance down the stretch earned him a Game 2 start against Detroit in the division series, where he matched zeroes with former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. Gray shut out the Tigers over eight innings and struck out nine.
His performance elicited comparisons to Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling from MVP Miguel Cabrera.
A's manager Bob Melvin still marvels at Gray's accomplishments.
"He did some amazing things in a short period of time," Melvin said. "If you would have asked me, sitting right here (a year ago), if he would be pitching for us in the playoffs I would have said that's a stretch. So when you look back, sure, it's surprising. ... But when you're with it every day and you watch it every day it's not surprising."
Gray's success led to a busy offseason of speaking engagements and fundraisers during the offseason in his hometown of Smyrna, Tenn., not far from where he starred at Vanderbilt.
"I was able to do more in the community from being in a bigger spotlight than the year before," Gray said. "That was pretty cool, especially being back in my hometown. People already kind of recognized me and whatnot but it was magnified because of that spotlight from last year."
The spotlight hasn't faded. The A's expect big things from Gray this season.
"We're looking forward to a full season of him," Melvin said. "If he gets x amount of starts, whatever it is, we feel like the numbers will speak for themselves."
Gray, who said he has not experienced a setback after a pin was placed in his left thumb during the offseason to repair a broken bone he incurred while trying to catch a line drive in Game 5 of the division series, said he won't rest of last year's accomplishments.
"I, (pitching coach) Curt (Young) and Bob know what I need to get better at and it's going to be that much easier to focus on that," said Gray, who arrived in Phoenix Jan. 28 and threw six bullpen sessions before camp official began. "But any time you sit back and start to get too comfortable is when you start to fall off.
"I'm not taking anything for granted," Gray added.
NOTES: OF Josh Reddick took his physical and reported to camp. Reddick is still awaiting his arbitration hearing. Position players do not have to report until Wednesday. ... LHP Drew Pomeranz did not throw on Saturday because he had an ingrown hair on his leg that had to be lanced. Pomeranz was acquired from Colorado in an offseason trade. ... Melvin said pitchers will focus during camp on getting better defensively. A's pitchers committed 10 errors last season.