THE REDBIRD REVIEW
After filling in the bottom section of the starting rotation with the free-agent signings of Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak put a star on top by winning the open-market bidding for Sonny Gray.
According to multiple media reports, the Cardinals committed a total of $75 million guaranteed to Gray through the 2026 campaign. That’s an average of $25 million over the next three years.
In adding Gray, Gibson and Lynn the Cardinals secured a combined 559 and ⅔ innings and 97 starts from the three right-handers to reinforce a skeletal rotation. Those numbers were collectively compiled in 2023 by the three new Redbirds.
In making the three moves the Cardinals filled a glaring need for stability and a reasonable degree of innings certainty.
For those of you that are craving potential negatives, the three starters come with questions. Let’s start with age. Gray is 34, Gibson is 36, and Lynn turns 37 in May. Will they hold up physically? Can they maintain the positive aspects of their performance?
Lynn must decrease his alarming total of 44 regular-season home runs allowed in 2024. If Lynn can normalize his flyball/home run rate next season, his fielding-independent ERA would be around 4.50. But I think 2023 was an outlier and Lynn is capable of doing better.
There was nothing wrong with Gibson’s 4.13 fielding-independent ERA last season. And his FIP over the past three seasons (4.09) is good for a bottom-side starter. I say that because the overall FIP for big-league starters since 2021 is 4.25. This makes Gibson an above-average starter, especially based on his anticipated role, but he’ll have to do it again in 2024.
I’ll repeat what I wrote about Gibson last week: he’s better than many fans realize. Since the start of 2021, Gibson ranks 10th in the majors with 51 quality starts. From 2021-2023 the durable Gibson had more quality starts than an extensive list of notable pitchers that includes Sonny Gray, Aaron Nola, Zac Gallen, Blake Snell, Dylan Cease, Shane Bieber, Max Scherzer, Max Fried, Jordan Montgomery, Eduardo Rodriguez, Charlie Morton, Pablo Lopez, Brandon Woodruff and Charlie Morton.
Gibson is ninth for most innings pitched over the last three seasons. Lynn missed several starts in 2022 because of knee-related issues, but he’s still 30th on the most-innings rankings since 2021.
Lynn is 34th in the majors for quality starts over the last three seasons; over that stretch he had more QS than Shane McClanahan, Justin Verlander, Kyle Hendricks, Sean Manea, Clayton Kershaw, Carlos Rodon and Walker Buehler. Sure, most of these guys had fewer quality starts than Lynn because of injuries. But as I mentioned last week, there is considerable value in just being able to pitch. The opposite? Leaving your team scrambling to fill starts. We’ve seen that too often in St. Louis in recent seasons.
It’s important to have Gibson and Lynn providing a stronger foundation at the bottom of the rotation. And by adding Gray to the high end of the rotation the Cardinals have upgraded the most impactful part of the team. How much? Well, sit tight. We’ll find out. That’s why teams play 162 games.
But to have a more enlightened perspective, it’s important to look at the guys who won’t be starting games for the 2024 Cardinals. I’m including Matthew Liberatore though he may be repurposed and utilized as a high-leverage reliever next season.
In 2023, Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Drew Rom, and Liberatore combined for an ugly 6.04 ERA in 391 and ⅔ combined innings as starters. That had to be addressed, cleaned up, and improved. Mozeliak has taken measures to do that.
The pressure was on Mozeliak to rebuild a collapsed 2023 starting rotation that wrecked the team to a hopeless 71-91 last-place finish in the NL Central. The Cards’ .438 winning percentage was the fourth worst by the franchise in a season during the 63-year Expansion Era. STL’s abhorrent 5.08 starting-pitching ERA was the worst in a season during the 28 years of club ownership by Bill DeWitt Jr.
Gray is a nice fit at the top of the rotation, and Gibson and Lynn will fill a glaring void at the No. 4 and No. 5 slots. The foundation is firmer now.
That said, the Cardinals need more starting-pitching depth … unless, of course, they are convinced Steven Matz can reliably deliver 30 starts in 2024 after averaging 13 and ½ starts in his first two seasons as a Cardinal.
I hope that Mozeliak isn’t finished with Project Rotation. But I’d be surprised if he made another move in this direction. Not for a starter of magnitude, anyway. But the Cardinals could use another starter that fits the top-rotation mold. They should be pursuing more quality, and perhaps a trade will get it done. They must also boost the bullpen. The bullpen is vulnerable and lacking arms that the Cardinals can count on.
The Cardinals have a disturbing pattern of overrating what they have – a prime reason for their disastrous freefall of 2023 – and Mozeliak can’t slip into the same mindset-trap again.
Mozeliak has done well to this point, but with this rotation I can’t help saying “more.” And as we’ve learned in recent seasons – when the Cardinals ran out of starting pitching – a lot more is definitely better. Mozeliak made a three-starter pledge last summer. Indeed, he’s brought in three new starters, but the Cardinals will have a very old rotation if they go into 2024 with this five-man alignment:
— Sonny Gray, age 34.
— Miles Mikolas turns 36 late in the ‘24 season.
— Steven Matz turns 33 in May.
— Gibson is 36.
— Lynn turns 37 in May.
Waiting in the wings is lefty starter Zack Thompson, age 26. And perhaps the Cardinals will ramp up Matthew Liberatore for another opportunity to start.
On the positive side, Mozeliak has limited the team’s liability by bringing in two guys (Lynn and Gibson) on one-year deals with a club option for 2025. A three-year deal for Gray is reasonable. Matz and Mikolas each have two years remaining on their deals. That said, if enough goes wrong with this group – and you never know – Mozeliak will be scrambling for starting-pitching assistance at the 2024 trade deadline, and then again after the season.
Unless Mikolas rebounds from a disappointing 2023, the Cardinals risk fooling themselves by casually installing him as a No. 2 starter behind Gray. It’s possible for Mikolas to improve and handle that role; he still has good stuff and his 4.27 FIP (in 2023) can be sharpened up.
But Mikolas has to be completely locked-in mentally on his pitching instead of barking at the other side’s dugout or trying to be a comedian for the TV people. And he must rehab a sinker that went bad on him in 2023. If the Cardinals are gambling on Mikolas as their No. 2 starter, their decision could go the wrong way.
OK, now I want to turn my full attention to Sonny Gray.
Is he a No. 1 starter?
There are a lot of opinions flying around out there.
This isn’t 1968. The standards for being cast as a No. 1 aren’t the same. No one is saying Gray is a latter-day Bob Gibson, or Juan Marichal, or Jim Palmer, or Tom Seaver or Don Drysdale or a the peak-form version of the young Adam Wainwright.
But in terms of his 2023 performance Gray’s numbers tell us who he is. It doesn’t matter how we label him. What matters is how well he’ll pitch for the Cardinals.
Gray has impressive credentials.
Let’s look at Gray’s 2023 and add other considerations.
* In 2023 he finished second to Gerrit Cole in American League Cy Young voting.
* He had the best fielding-independent ERA (FIP) among MLB starting pitchers (2.83).
* He had the third-best ERA (2.79) ERA among big-league starters behind Blake Snell (2.25) and Cole (2.63).
* Gray ranked first among big-league starters in home-run rate, yielding only 0.39 per nine innings. The .319 slugging percentage vs. Gray was the second-lowest against an MLB starter.
* With 5.3 Wins Above Replacement in 2023, Gray was tied with Kevin Gausman for third among MLB starters in WAR. Only Zack Wheeler (5.9) and Spencer Strider (5.5) had more than Sonny.
* Among innings-qualified MLB starters in 2023, Gray had more WAR than Gerrit Cole, Logan Webb, Zac Gallen, Aaron Nola, Blake Snell, Justin Steele, Corbin Burnes, Merrill Kelly, Luis Castillo, Jordan Montgomery, Dylan Cease, Pablo Lopez, George Kirby, Framber Valdez, Lucas Giolito and Chris Bassitt (and others.)
* Gray ranked third among MLB starters in Win Probability Added. Only Cole and Snell did better.
* Gray ranked among the top 25 starters last season for most innings (184) and highest strikeout rate (24.3%). He was tied for 20th with 17 quality starts.
* In 2023 opponents batted .226 against Gray with a .288 onbase percentage and that .319 slug.
Can he do it again? Gray’s stats are very good — but not as strong — over the three-season stretch that began in 2021. Among the 95 innings-qualified starting pitchers from 2021 through 2023, Gray ranked 17th in FIP (3.34), 17th in WAR, 20th in ERA (3.30), 25th in Win Probability Added and 34th in strikeout rate (25%).
Because injuries limited him to an average of 25 starts in 2021 and 2022, Gray is 36th overall in innings over the past three seasons combined. That’s an average of 146 IP per season. If you want to identify a concern, this is it. If you want to downgrade him for that, cool. But the Cardinals have improved by signing him.
Gray comes out better in assessing his last five seasons. Since the start of 2019 he ranks 10th among MLB starters in WAR. And he’s ninth in adjusted ERA (138+), 10th in standard ERA (3.22), and 11th in FIP (3.34). Over that time Gray is also third in fewest home runs allowed per nine innings and 21st in strikeouts per 9. And only 17 pitchers have made more starts than Gray since the beginning of ’19.
Gray also developed a new pitch – the sweeper/slider – in 2023. It worked beautifully for him and made his pitching arsenal more imposing.
Last season 203 plate appearances ended with Gray throwing the diabolical sweeper. And opponents batted .097 against the pitch with a .118 slug, 41.3 percent whiff rate, and a monster strikeout rate of 53.2%. Opponents had no home runs against the Gray sweeper, and managed only four doubles. The other 15 hits against the sweet sweeper (in 195 at-bats) were singles.
Gray may be 34, but he comes here with a fairly new killer pitch that’s made a difference in his work. According to Statcast, Gray’s version of the sweeper/slider was the most effective version of the pitch in the majors last season. And Statcast assessed above-average value on four other Gray pitches in 2023: four-seam fastball, cutter, curve and sinker. His change was slightly below average. Gray’s average fastball velocity (93 mph) is fine. But as our friend Jay Jaffe noted at FanGraphs, Gray is a pitcher “who relies more on spin, command, and deception than velocity.”
Gray has never broken down with any type of serious arm injury, but he’s been sidelined with relatively minor ailments (back, hamstring, pectoral, rib.) That isn’t disturbing, and the Cardinals’ three-year deal offers some protection. Gray has done his part by increasing his strength and improving his conditioning to be at his physical best in the later stages of his career.
I’m pleased with Mozeliak’s three additions to a burned-out rotation … but I’d be more impressed if the POBO made a strong fourth addition. For 2024, the total salaries paid to Gray, Lynn and Gibson amount to $48 million, or an average of $16 million. This hardly breaks the bank.
At least the Cardinals are in a better spot because of Mozeliak’s first three moves. But this isn’t the time to declare that we’ve witnessed some dramatic transformation here. Mozeliak got busy, and that’s appreciated … but also way overdue. The Cardinals neglected this crucial area for far too long.
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.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
We have a new “Seeing Red” podcast available from Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link. In this latest episode we discussed the Cardinals’ rotation moves.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Bill James Online or Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.
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.