Cards’ philosophy was all wrong. Getting Gray changes that

MLB

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The St. Louis Cardinals came into the winter with crystal-clear needs: pitching, pitching and some more pitching. John Mozeliak, the longtime president of baseball operations, has been saying since August that the team — which cratered to its first sub-.500 season since 2007 and first last-place finish since 1990 this year — would need to add three starting pitchers from outside the organization.

After agreeing to terms with veteran right-hander Sonny Gray on Monday, the Cardinals can put a checkmark in one of those three boxes. In Gray, a 34-year-old joining on a three-year, $75 million deal, the Cardinals are finally making inroads on a problem that looked foreboding even prior to their out-of-character 2023 disaster: Their rotation did not have strikeout stuff.

Over the past few seasons, the Cardinals have tried to pair athletic but decidedly bat-first lineups with pitching staffs that did just enough to get by on guile, contact suppression and the benefit of a few stellar defenders behind them. If you’re being charitable, you’d call it pitchability; if you’re being realistic, you’d call it an arrogant challenge to the realities of time and luck.

Well, in 2023, either the pitchability or the luck ran out, coinciding with the departure of Yadier Molina, the arrival of a slugging prospect without a good defensive home in Jordan Walker and the league’s new limitations on the shift. As the Cardinals’ season spiraled out of control and the pitchers continued to serve up runs no matter who was behind the plate, the team had to reckon with the way of the game, with the laws of baseball nature that do, in fact, apply to them. They needed pitchers who could miss bats.

In the past five full seasons, the Cardinals employed only one starting pitcher who managed to strike out at least 23% of the batters he faced — roughly the MLB average strikeout percentage — in a season of at least 80 innings. That was Jack Flaherty, who did so back in 2018 and 2019. Since then, nobody. It’s hard to overstate how outlandish that has become. Just last season, four teams had at least four different pitchers meet those marks in one season! A full half of the league had three or more.

Gray is one of these not-so-rare pitchers who misses bats, which is a baseline good thing. He has run an above-average K% in each of the past five seasons. What he provides as a total package is considerably more rare. Since departing the New York Yankees ahead of 2019, Gray has the ninth-best park-adjusted ERA+ among all starting pitchers (min. 500 innings).

He made plenty of sense for the Cardinals, a club that is perhaps hedging between the current, waning era of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado and whatever the future might hold, with prospects from a contained deadline sell-off going head-to-head with more apparently promising groups across the NL Central. At 34, Gray required a far less significant commitment than younger pitchers on the market either did (Aaron Nola) or likely will (Blake Snell), but frankly, he carries similar upside for the next few years, when the Cardinals still figure to have a good chance of contending, barring massive upgrades by their division rivals.

Gray’s recent drawback has been health, as he suffered through a procession of nagging injuries that kept him from making 30 starts in 2021 and 2022, but he’s coming off a 32-start, 184-inning triumph this past season with the Minnesota Twins.

He also earns points for adjusting, altering his arsenal in highly successful ways last season and in ways that portend success despite advancing age. Never overly reliant on high-octane fastball velocity, Gray is living on the cutting edge of current pitching philosophy. Last season, he leaned into a devastating sweeper — a breaking ball that has always been part of his arsenal, despite the relatively new label — and added a good cutter that helped him keep hitters guessing.

Now, what does this mean for the Cardinals? Among other things, it means Gray immediately slots in as their ace. Early 2024 projections from the Steamer system at FanGraphs have him as a top-25 starter in baseball by WAR, virtually tied with fellow free agents Snell and former Cardinal Jordan Montgomery. That’s good because it means there’s one high-level starter where the Cardinals had zero. But going back to the reality of the game in the 2020s, they’ll need more than one to cement themselves as contenders.

Coming into the offseason, the Cardinals’ rotation lacked both upside and depth. And even though Gray is the team’s third starting pitcher signing of the winter, he’s their first crack at upside. Prior to signing Gray, Mozeliak began his work building up the depth by inking veterans Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn on one-year deals. Both 36 years old, they are veterans of contending teams who have exhibited extreme durability; Gibson, in particular, hasn’t had an injury keep him out for more than a standard two-week injured-list stint since 2016.

A few years removed from top-flight starter status, Lynn has developed an escalating home run problem that culminated in a brutal 5.73 ERA last season, as even the Los Angeles Dodgers tried and failed to solve his long-ball scourge. He does still miss some bats with his fastball-heavy arsenal, but the cost-benefit analysis is getting tougher to square. Gibson, meanwhile, has always presented as a No. 4 or No. 5 starter on a decent team, with his below-average 93 ERA+ accepted in return for his uninterrupted availability.

Lynn and Gibson are useful players to have around following a season in which the pitching plan in St. Louis often crept toward desperation, but they cannot be counted on for good innings. If the Cardinals’ plan was to add three starting pitchers to go with Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz, Mozeliak could technically dust off his hands, check the boxes and call it a day. A more competitive approach, however, would serve the team well.

Having Gray in the fold by the winter meetings gives the Cardinals a launching point, a chance to view their rotation revamp more opportunistically. Maybe the three slots are full — or maybe one slot is full, and two arms are on hand as swingmen. With an abundance of relatively young outfielders, the Cardinals should still be sniffing around for trade opportunities — with the Seattle Mariners or Chicago White Sox, for instance — that might add further upside to their beleaguered pitching group.

At the very least, we now have evidence that they know what they are supposed to be looking for.

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