Good morning to you on this “sonny” Tuesday.
I put together a variety of national-media opinions on the St. Louis signing of starting pitcher Sonny Gray. I also included some assessments of Gray written by baseball analysts before the start of free agency.
Eno Sarris, The Athletic, commenting at the X (Twitter) platform: “The Sonny Gray signing was a strong one, in my opinion. This year, he picked up a sweeper that was #1 by results & #22 by Stuff+ (min 100 IP). Always had premium spin, four-seam fastball is still above average if not super fast, and if you just use his projections with aging, STL paid market rate.”
R.J. Anderson, CBS Sports: “While other second- and third-tier free agent starters had tumultuous seasons, Gray quietly pieced together another high-quality effort. Gray doesn’t throw hard and he’ll turn 34 this offseason, but since 2019 he’s posted a better ERA+ than Luis Castillo, Zac Gallen, Zack Wheeler, and many others who are held in higher public regard.”
A review by the astute Keith Law at The Athletic: “St. Louis’s pitching was the team’s real downfall in 2023, as they allowed 5.12 runs per game, better only than two teams that entered the year as non-contenders, Washington and Colorado. The Cardinals’ only starter to post an ERA below 3.50 was Jordan Montgomery, whom they traded to Texas at the deadline for two solid prospects; their only other starter below a 4.00 ERA was Steven Matz, who has still never qualified for the ERA title in any season of his career and didn’t pitch after mid-August due to a lat strain.
“They need innings, which Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson should provide, but they also need quality innings, and that’s where Gray comes in. His 2023 season was worth over 5 WAR in both systems, and while some of it, notably his very low home run rate (0.4 HR/9), probably isn’t sustainable going forward, there are reasons to believe he can continue to pitch at a high level thanks to the new shape on his slider and recent upticks in his fastball command and control …
“With the out-pitch slider, the high-spin four-seamer, the command he’s exhibited the past two years, and his overall athleticism, Gray is the kind of pitcher on whom I’d be willing to bet for a long-term deal. The Cardinals went for a higher AAV, $25 million a year, and got him on a three-year deal, which is on the shorter side for a starting pitcher of Gray’s caliber but reflects the fact that he’ll be 36 in the last year of the contract. I think it’s a great deal for the team and player, even acknowledging that predicting pitcher health is an errand even fools would disdain.”
Zach Crizer, Yahoo Sports: “After agreeing to terms with veteran right-hander Sonny Gray, 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.
“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) … Gray 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.”
More from Crizer: “Gray 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.”
Ben Clemens (FanGraphs) wrote about Gray in his Top 50 free agents preview: “Gray checks a lot of the same boxes that Aaron Nola and Jordan Montgomery do, but his age and injury history are undeniable risk factors that will likely result in him getting a smaller deal than those two. Performance-wise, there’s not much light between him and the rest of this tier of pitchers; it’s not a coincidence that Steamer projects him as Montgomery’s equal next year, and not far behind Snell and Nola. But it’s also not a coincidence that ZiPS projects him for fewer wins over a five-year horizon; pitchers don’t have predictable aging curves, but give me the 31-year-old over the 34-year-old in general.”
Patrick Dubuque, Baseball Prospectus, on the Cardinals’ additions of Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson: “Pitching development is an area where St. Louis has lagged behind. The hope for John Mozeliak is that relying on veterans smooths over that particular weakness, coming into the organization fully formed. But given the lingering concerns about Willson Contreras and his approach to preparation and gamecalling, you can forgive skeptics for seeing this as buying a bunch of expensive ingredients and then handing them to your sleepy-eyed 15-year-old neighbor to cook.”
Dubuque used a “Columbo” reference in likening the Cardinals to the 1970s hit TV show: “A rotation of Gray-Mikolas-Matz-Gibson-Lynn is about as intimidating as a lumpy-looking guy in a waterstain-colored trench coat. The Cardinals require a sort of mental adjustment in our modern era, with its multiseason narratives. Mozeliak was never going to tear his roster down, or plunge the franchise into a redemption arc. He’s never been particularly interested in optimizing for a contention window. Those who want to look down the road, and see a rapidly aging Goldschmidt and Arenado, flanked by a bunch of starters scraping 91 mph, aren’t wrong. The Cardinals simply refuse to let that future dictate them. They’re one of the few teams that really do take it one game at a time.
“Mozeliak’s idea of baseball is more old-fashioned, serialized: Each season, you do your best to win a championship. At the end, after the credits, you start over and try again,” Dubuque wrote. “And at a certain point the well runs dry, and you get canceled. It isn’t any more complicated than that, and to be fair to the team, for a quarter of a century it largely hasn’t had to be. Certain formulas just work, even if it doesn’t make for prestige television
Esteban Rivera, FanGraphs, who wrote this about Gray before the start of free agency. I provided the link earlier in this column: “You couldn’t ask for a much better contract year from Gray. He posted the second-highest strikeout total of his career, the fewest home runs allowed, the highest WAR, and highest innings total since 2015. Across the board, it was probably the best he has ever pitched, and it came in his age-33 season. His age, and not his performance, will be the limiting factor in his contract size and list of potential suitors, but the shape of his aging curve could very well be different from other pitchers in his cohort. His reliance on spin, command, and deception make him a compelling candidate to have an above-average mid-30s run.”
An excerpt from Dayn Perry in his excellent Birdy Work blog, which you definitely should subscribe to: “Assume skills retention on the part of Gray, and he’s a strong two/soft one. That means the rotation as presently assembled is 80% fourth and fifth guys. Maybe Steven Matz – at age 33 the youngest pitcher in line to be in the rotation next season – if he stays healthy and gets back to his post-bullpen-exodus level of performance is something more than that. Those, however, are two hefty “ifs.” Otherwise, you’re probably banking on Miles Mikolas to rebound more than he figures to.
“Lynn and Gibson are contemporary workhorses, and that has value, particularly given that they’re, in essence, replacing Jack Flaherty and Adam Wainwright at the back end. Gray also has the potential to roughly replicate Jordan Montgomery’s value and do so across what one hopes are more starts than the 21 that Monty made prior to the Rangers trade. Given the churn and dismal 2023 contributions of starters who will not/probably won’t contribute next season, improvement is quite likely. But is it enough? Is it enough in a division that houses the Cubs, who coming off a winning season seem poised to make multiple big-ticket additions this winter? Is it enough if the Brewers decide to run in back rather than pawn off their key pieces? If it is for that, then is it enough if, say, Mikolas is pressed to start Game 2 of a playoff series?
“These rhetoricals are posed partly in bad faith because, no, I don’t think it’s enough. I still think they need another front-end presence in the rotation, and they’re not going to get that internally any time soon. At this point, the hope is that when Mozeliak said he was still thinking in terms of adding three starters, he meant three free-agent starters and that adding via trade is still a consideration. Another hope is that Mo was knowingly lowering expectations with his words and that they’re still pondering a fourth addition. Clearly, I am wandering well beyond the boundaries of what I know and can know. Such is the substratum of dreams and nightmares.”
Bradford Doolittle, ESPN.com, gave the Gray signing an A-minus grade. “The Cardinals continued their execution of what is for them a rare strategy — filling out the depth chart via free agent spending — with their splashiest signing yet. St. Louis landed Sonny Gray, an American League Cy Young Award finalist last season, on a deal that turbocharges an already aggressive approach to the winter. After the uninspired signings last week of veteran journeymen Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson, this is not only much more of a needle-moving deal but, by pushing Lynn and Gibson farther down the rotation pecking order, those moves are in part — but not entirely — redeemed.
“Gray is a fantastic get for St. Louis in that he’s not only a true front-of-the-rotation starter, but he adds what the Cardinals need (strikeouts) while fitting right in with what the staff already does well (limiting homers). In today’s game, there are essentially three primary markers you look for in a top starter: innings, whiffs, meatballs. If you can combine lots of the first two with not very many of the third, you’ve got an All-Star pitcher. That sounds obvious, but it’s hard to find the combination of traits Gray employs.
“While this kind of free agent activity is unusual for St. Louis, it is possible the Cardinals have been guided by the strategy that undergirded the Texas Rangers’ run to the championship this year, which was to target name-brand starting pitchers at every opportunity, and there was no limit to how many the roster could accommodate. You might argue that the Cardinals should have targeted Lynn or Gibson, but not both, because forgoing one might have freed up funds to make a second impact move after landing Gray. But what if the Cardinals aren’t done? It seems like they’ve pinned down a core-five rotation, with Gray followed by Miles Mikolas, Gibson, Lynn and Steven Matz. That’s not enough. One more starter, someone who slots in between Gray and Mikolas, or even pushes Gray down to No. 2, well, then we’re getting somewhere. Keep going, Cardinals.”
Keith Law, The Athletic, wrote about Gray in his free-agent preview: “Gray is listed at a generous 5-foot-10, but height doesn’t measure heart — or effectiveness, as Gray led the American League in FIP this year and finished second in both bWAR and fWAR thanks to a combination of some of the best control of his career and the lowest home run rate of any starter in baseball. Gray’s been a good starter for a decade now, with some ups and downs, but part of his success in 2023 was the introduction of a different slider, tagged a sweeper by Statcast, that was the most effective pitch of its type in 2023, worth 19 runs above average thanks to huge vertical break and above-average horizontal break as well. He gets good ride on a high-spin four-seamer and pounds the zone with it, with only 31.6 percent of four-seamers he threw in 2023 going for balls.
“Gray didn’t miss a start in 2023, missing eight starts the year before due to hamstring and pectoral strains, with no history of any significant arm problems. The extremely low home-run rate is probably not sustainable — his 5.2 percent home runs per fly ball rate is the lowest for any qualifying starter in a full season since 2014, but he does keep the ball in the park more than the average pitcher because he’s a slight ground-ball guy and limits hard contact.”
Joe Sheehan (of the outstanding Joe Sheehan Newsletter) isn’t a fan of the Gray signing: “At 34, Gray is a spring chicken next to Gibson and Lynn … Gray, for me, is also more a #3 than a #2. He’s coming off his best season since 2019, leading the AL in FIP and finishing second in the Cy Young balloting. He’s just not a reliable source of innings. Gray’s 184 innings last year were his most since 2015, and even leaving 2020 out of the calculations, he’s averaged 149 innings a year in the last five full seasons. He has the run prevention of a #2, especially having gone through the Twins’ pitcher-development system, but the volume of a #4. (There’s probably a larger conversation here about recalibrating what a starting pitcher is, and under that umbrella, what it means to be a #1, #2, et al.)
“John Mozeliak said he was going to add three starters, and he’s done so. The Cardinals should be better for it, because they just got nothing from their back-end and fill-in starters last year. In adding Gray, Gibson, and Lynn, though, the Cardinals have taken on a lot of age and performance risk, and only moderately improved the team’s projected strikeout rate.”
Jay Jaffe, FanGraphs: “For the Cardinals, Gray joins a rotation that was brutal in 2023, ranking 26th in the majors in ERA (5.08) and 22nd in FIP (4.61). That unit has already experienced considerable turnover: Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty were traded in advance of the August 1 deadline, Adam Wainwright retired, and Dakota Hudson was non-tendered. Even in its restructured form, what’s left still looks rather unimposing except when it comes to stamina, with the returning Miles Mikolas joined by Gibson and Lynn; with Gray in the fold, that’s four of the top 23 pitchers by total innings in 2023.
“Steven Matz is the likely fifth starter, with Matthew Liberatore the top alternative unless another pitcher is acquired … Gray doesn’t solve all of the Cardinals’ problems. Even so, this is a nice, compact deal for a nice, compact pitcher, and it gives president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and vice president/general manager Michael Girsch a jump on getting their offseason work done.”
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link. A fresh podcast — on the Cardinals’ free-agent signings — is available now.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.