With Sonny Gray signed to lead rotation, what’s next on Cardinals’ offseason agenda?

Thanksgiving leftovers have only recently gone bad, but one team has already checked off a rather ambitious box on its offseason to-do list. 

The disastrous 2023 season in St. Louis was still weeks away from the finish line when John Mozeliak, the team’s president of baseball operations, told local reporters the club’s goal was to add at least three starting pitchers from outside the organization during the offseason. Even with a healthy group of free-agent starters on the horizon, it was an aggressive target for a club that’s not often dabbled heavily in free agency. 

With Monday morning’s reported signing of Sonny Gray — who finished second in the AL Cy Young race last season — to a 3-year, $75 million deal, the Cardinals have added their third free-agent starting pitcher of the offseason. Last week, the club announced a pair of one-year deals, with veterans Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson. 

The question is this: Have the Cardinals done enough?

That answer to that question prompts another question: Are they done? It’s not yet even December.

Before we get to that, let’s start with the dried ink. All three signings were outstanding, low-risk/medium-reward deals that should improve the club by providing depth while also retaining financial flexibility. Moving quickly to land Lynn and Gibson to one-year deals with a club option was smart. There’s really no such thing as a bad one-year deal, and both players have ties to St. Louis, which is nice. Lynn, of course, started his career with the Cardinals and still lives locally. Gibson pitched for Mizzou, just an hour-and-a-half west on Interstate 70. Gibson threw 192 innings last year, and Lynn threw 183 2/3. If they’re the club’s Nos. 4 and 5 starters all season, that’s a pretty solid rotation.

Cardinals get Sonny Gray on below-market deal

And getting Gray on a three-year deal is bordering on a steal, even at $75 million. In a market with so many teams craving multiple starting pitchers, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Gray got four years, even at 34 years old. Coming off a season with a 2.79 ERA/2.83 FIP, with 183 strikeouts in 184 innings, he could have held out for that fourth year. Instead, the Cardinals got him without having him on the books at 38 years old. 

With that trio, Mozeliak addressed the primary issue. 

So many of the problems with that debacle of a 2023 season can be traced back to the rotation’s struggles. Last year’s group of starters — 10 pitchers made at least eight starts — compiled a 5.08 ERA, which ranked 26th of the 30 teams. The team’s ERA was 5.67 in the first inning, meaning the club was regularly playing from behind almost immediately. By innings, the starters were 14th, but both Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty — who finished second and third on the club in innings despite being traded by August 1 — are now gone.

Mozeliak plugged the gap in the rotation.

At least, that’s what he hopes. As pretty much everyone has pointed out, signing the oldest of the “premium” free-agent starters on the market gives St. Louis a very, very veteran rotation. Gray turned 34 in September. Miles Mikolas is 35. Gibson is 36. Lynn turns 37 in May. Steven Matz, who turns 33 in May, is the spring chicken of the group. Youngsters Matthew Liberatore and Drew Rom have a lot to prove before they’re anything more than injury backups.

But expecting/hoping/wishing that group stays healthy is a big ask. Age is undefeated in baseball (and life) and the only question is when that decline hits. For some starting pitchers, such as Adam Wainwright, it lands later than it does for others, but when it hits, it hits hard.

It’s not going out on a limb to say the Cardinals would be thrilled with 150-plus innings, a 4.50 ERA (or better) and a 2.0 bWAR (or better) from Mikolas, Lynn and Gibson. For all three, that would be an ERA improvement. 

Know how many starting pitchers 35 and over have hit all three of those modest marks the past three seasons? Just 10, and four of those 10 seasons were from future Hall of Famers Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, age-defiers both. The odds of the Cardinals getting all three of their 35-and-over crew into that group seems, well, not great. 

Will Cardinals trade for more pitching?

So that’s where we get to the “are the Cardinals done?” question. They absolutely should not be done. The one-year deals for Gibson and Lynn don’t impact, financially, any sort of pursuits of the premium free agent starting pitchers on the market, the guys like Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, Eduardo Rodriguez or even Yoshinobu Yamamoto (though the expected race for his services would have likely priced the Cardinals out even if they hadn’t yet signed anyone). And even Gray’s contract, with only three years, shouldn’t really be a factor. 

MORE: Potential destinations for Japanese star Yoshinobu Yamamoto

Also, it goes without saying that neither Lynn nor Gibson’s spot in the rotation should be an obstacle. A team that declines to pursue Blake Snell for the top of the rotation because it has Mikolas/Matz/Gibson/Lynn penciled into the 2-3-4-5 spots is a team that’s not serious about pursuing a World Series title.

As currently constructed, the rotation is probably good enough to compete in the NL Central where, barring the Cubs going absolutely crazy at the Winter Meetings, getting to that 89-92 win range puts a team right in the mix. But October is a different story. 

The Cardinals could still compete for the top available free-agent starters. Maybe more likely would be pursuing one of the top starting pitchers available via trade, guys like Tyler Glasnow, Dylan Cease, Shane Bieber or Corbin Burnes, though it seems unlikely that the Brewers would trade Burnes within the division (especially with their ex-manager now skippering the Cubs). 

They have the pieces to make a deal happen. Anyone from this group of big-leaguers could be had in the right deal — Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, Tommy Edman, Brendan Donovan, Alex Burleson and Luken Baker — and there are blue-chippers in the minors who could be included, too. They’d rather not move a high-ceiling prospect like Tink Hence or Gordon Graceffo (especially after seeing Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen become legit aces after leaving the organization in trades) but that might be what it takes to make a deal happen. 

And that brings us back to the new biggest question of the moment for the Cardinals: Are they done? 

Even though the fans won’t like to hear it, they’ve probably made their last major addition to the rotation, but they’re almost certainly not done molding the active roster.

The 2023 season left too much of a bad taste for both the front office and the fans. Changes will be made. They’re still searching for bullpen help, and that might come via the trade market with some of the position players mentioned above moving in those deals. 

Source : ESPN.com

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