Cardinals sign Sonny Gray to 3-year deal: What it means for 2024 rotation

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In a recent press conference announcing the signings of starting pitchers Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson, St. Louis Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak delivered somewhat of a premonition.

“We don’t think we’re finished at this point,” the long-time executive said.

Less than a week later, Mozeliak made good on his word. Per multiple league sources, the Cardinals signed right-handed starting pitcher Sonny Gray to a three-year, $75 million deal Monday morning, completing Mozeliak’s winter aspirations of acquiring three starting pitchers. Gray, an All-Star for the Minnesota Twins in 2023 and finished second in American League Cy Young Award balloting, was regarded as one of the best available arms in free agency. He was also identified early in the offseason as a top target for St. Louis.

In signing Gray, the Cardinals landed another durable starting pitcher, a commodity that has become the theme of the offseason. Gray logged 184 innings over 32 starts in 2023 as a formidable No. 2 starter in the Twins rotation. Gray doesn’t profile as a swing-and-miss pitcher, but his 9.0 K/9 rate and 0.4 HR/9 rate jumped off the page for St. Louis. That Gray is also a veteran with ample playoff experience was also valued, as the Cardinals are determined to stack the rotation with reliability.

“When you look back and unpack our season, there are a lot of things that went wrong,” Mozeliak said in a recent phone interview with The Athletic. “But certainly the inconsistency of our starting rotation put a lot of pressure on a lot of different areas early on in our past season, and I think that just got compounded throughout the year. Having more consistency in our rotation is key, and as we’ve stated all along, we’re hoping to improve that.”

The Cardinals felt as if they shored up their rotation depth early in the winter, leaving them in position to target a top arm in either free agency or via trade. The organization felt it was imperative to operate this way rather than miss out on two experienced players who wanted to play in St. Louis and could bring them the innings they desperately needed heading into 2024. By signing Lynn and Gibson first, the Cardinals were able to push their chips in for Gray, the pitcher wanted all along.

Though he was in the top class of available starting pitchers, Gray was always the logical choice for St. Louis. Due to his age (Gray is set to enter his age-35 season next year), he would not require a long-term contract. Instead, the Cardinals were able to capitalize on a three-year deal, and though they still paid a $25 million in average annual value, the length of the contract should not plague them financially.

Now, Gibson and Lynn weren’t the splashiest names, but perhaps they were the most necessary. The Cardinals had 10 starting pitchers make at least eight starts in 2023. Other than Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty (both traded at the trade deadline) only Miles Mikolas recorded at least 10 starts spanning at least six innings. Mikolas, who missed only one start last season due to a suspension, recorded at least six innings in 21 of his 35 starts. In their time with St. Louis, Montgomery and Flaherty recorded at least six innings in 13 of 21 and 10 of 20, respectively. From there, the Cardinals’ results drop dramatically.

Adam Wainwright made 21 starts, yet only five of those yielded at least six innings. Due to an early season demotion to the bullpen and an eventual season-ending injury, Steven Matz made only 17 starts. He recorded at least six innings in four of those, all of which came in his four outings before suffering the left lat injury that ended his season. After the trade deadline, the Cardinals turned to Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore, granting both young left-handers their first opportunities to start consistently at the major-league level. They combined for 20 starts but reached the six-inning mark only three times (Liberatore twice, Thompson once). Dakota Hudson did so in four of his 12 starts, while Drew Rom (eight starts) and Woodford (nine starts) did not record a start of at least six innings last year.

In adding Lynn and Gibson, the hope is the club will no longer have to scramble to fill innings next year. Gibson’s 33 starts for the Baltimore Orioles tied for the most in the American League, while Lynn’s 32 starts between the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers ranked third in the National League.

Gibson notched 19 starts of at least six innings and Lance recorded 17. Add in Gray, who reached the six-innings mark 19 times, and the Cardinals will have added 97 starts and just shy of 560 innings to next year’s staff.

“We (wanted) to go in with a little bit more certainty and have that veteran presence,” Mozeliak said last week. “Young players may emerge and surprise us … but what we don’t want to end up doing is saying we’re counting on X, Y and Z and then we end up being disappointed. We’re trying to get a little more sure-handed.”

Of course, there is a difference between the quantity of innings pitched and the quality of innings pitched, and if the Cardinals are banking on the latter, four of the five presumed starting pitchers in next year’s rotation (Mikolas, Gibson, Lynn and Matz) will need to turn in remarkably better campaigns. None of the four starters posted an ERA under 4.00 in 2023 (Matz registered a 3.86 ERA overall, but a 4.04 ERA as a starter), Mikolas, Gibson and Lance all ranked in the top five in the majors in hits allowed and both Lynn and Mikolas were plagued by the home-run ball.

Now, there are reasons for optimism. The Cardinals believe Lynn’s home-run rate (Lynn allowed an MLB-worst 44) will be aided by Busch Stadium’s pitcher-friendly dimensions. Mikolas is only one year removed from an All-Star campaign, and Matz strung together arguably the five most promising starts of his Cardinal career before his lat injury. And, of course, with the acquisition of Gray, the Cardinals believe they have found an esteemed upper-rotation arm that can anchor the rest of the rotation.

Though it is doubtful they will continue to address the rotation through free agency, the trade market remains on the table, especially in regards to acquiring relief pitching. Those conversations should increase as early as next week, with Major League Baseball’s annual Winter Meetings set to begin Sunday in Nashville.

The Cardinals still have much to address, but their biggest task appears to have been checked off. True to his word, Mozeliak acquired three starting pitchers — all before Dec. 1. Now it’s a matter of what comes next, and if that will be enough for St. Louis to return to playoff contention.

(Photo of Sonny Gray: Ron Schwane/Getty Images)

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