The Cardinals have added their desired top-of-the-rotation starter. St. Louis announced the signing of right-hander Sonny Gray to a three-year guarantee with a club option for the 2027 season. It’s a reported $75MM deal, while the option is valued at $30MM and comes with a $5MM buyout (which is included in the overall guarantee).
Gray, who celebrated his 34th birthday earlier this month, hit free agency on the heels of a dominant 2023 campaign with the Twins that saw him earn his third career All Star appearance and finish as the runner-up in AL Cy Young award voting behind Yankees righty Gerrit Cole. The veteran hurler posted a sterling 2.79 ERA (54% better than league average by measure of ERA+) along with an MLB-best 2.83 FIP in 184 innings of work across 32 starts. His 24.3% strikeout rate was a top-25 figure among qualified starters this season, while his 47.3% groundball rate ranked ninth among that same group. Only Framber Valdez, Zach Eflin, Justin Steele, and Kyle Bradish posted better figures in both stats this year.
The deal will be the first free agent contract of Gray’s 11-year major league career, as the 18th overall pick of the 2011 draft signed an extension with the Reds upon being traded to Cincinnati in early 2019 that covered the 2020-22 seasons, with a team option for 2023. At the time of the three-year, $30.5MM deal, Gray was coming off a brutal 2018 campaign with the Yankees that saw him post a 4.90 ERA (86 ERA+) with a 4.17 FIP. Fortunately for both the Reds and Gray, the righty quickly turned things around with a 2.87 ERA, 175 1/3 inning performance during the 2019 season. Altogether, Gray posted a 3.22 ERA (138 ERA+) and 3.34 FIP over the life of his extension, though the final two seasons of the deal were spent with the Twins after the righty was shipped to Minnesota in exchange for right-hander Chase Petty just before the 2022 season.
Strong as Gray’s platform season in 2023 was, there were some potential red flags in his performance. Most notably, Gray allowed a microscopic 5.2% of his fly balls to leave the yard for home runs, by far a career low that flies in the face of his career-high 6.9% barrel rate. That disparity leaves Gray with expected stats that are significantly less impressive than his actual production last season, including a 3.64 xFIP and a 3.95 SIERA. While those are both still top-20 figures among qualified starters this season, it’s reasonable to be concerned that Gray’s elite home run prevention figures may not hold up over time, particularly as he enters his mid-thirties. Of course, a move from the Twins’ home ballpark of Target Field (which has played slightly homer-friendly in recent years) to the Cardinals’ home field of Busch Stadium could help alleviate those concerns to some extent. While Busch played as an essentially neutral ballpark in terms of home runs in 2023, the stadium has been among the best for suppressing the long ball in recent years.
Though a deal for Gray comes with its fair share of risk, it’s hard to imagine a team better situated to enjoy the benefits of his services than the Cardinals. St. Louis starters posted a collective ERA of 5.02 in 2023, the fifth-worst figure in the majors. The club’s struggles with starting pitching this season led president of baseball operations John Mozeliak to announce the club’s desire to add three starting pitchers this winter to a rotation that included little certainty beyond veteran righty Miles Mikolas headed into 2024. Between deals for Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson, and now Gray, St. Louis has accomplished that goal before the calendar flips to December.
Lynn and Gibson both pitched to the results of a back-end starter in 2023 with ERAs of 5.73 and 4.73, respectively. Adding Gray to the mix gives the Cardinals a bonafide, front-of-the-rotation arm to whom they could confidently assign a playoff start to as they look to turn things around on the heels of a 91-loss season that saw them finish dead last in the NL Central this year. Gray was among the top free agent starters this winter, coming in at the #9 spot of MLBTR’s Top 50 MLB free agents list with a projected four-year, $90MM contract. That projection ended up a year and $15MM above the contract Gray received, though our $22.5MM projected average annual value was actually slightly below the $25MM figure Gray ultimately received.
It’s possible the deal completes the club’s 2024 rotation with a projected starting five of Gray, Mikolas, Gibson, Lynn, and left-hander Steven Matz. That would make for a rotation entirely comprised of veteran arms well past their 30th birthdays; Matz, 33 in May, would be the youngest of the group. That being said, it’s at least feasible the club could look to add a younger arm to the rotation later in the offseason. Matz has seen considerable use out of the bullpen during his two years in St. Louis, leaving a plausible path to a fourth rotation addition should the club to make one. In addition to Gray, the Cardinals have been connected to both NPB ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto and a potential reunion with southpaw Jordan Montgomery this offseason.
That being said, it’s unclear whether the signing of Gray will preclude the club from adding either of those arms from a payroll perspective. It’s worth noting that Mozeliak has indicated payroll could stay relatively stagnant compared to last year’s expected figure prior to their sell-side moves at the trade deadline. That would likely leave the Cardinals with around $40-50MM of payroll space to work with this offseason, $22MM of which has already been dedicated to the signings of Gibson and Lynn. Between the $25MM reported cost for Gray and the Cardinals’ reported desire to add multiple arms to the bullpen this offseason, the club seemingly has minimal financial wiggle room for other moves of significance going forward.
In addition to the $75MM the Cardinals are committed to Gray, the club stands to lose their second-highest pick in the 2024 draft and $500K in international bonus pool space from the signing of a qualified free agent. The Twins, who extended Gray a qualifying offer earlier this month, are in line to receive a compensatory draft pick after the first round in next year’s draft, as Gray signed for more than $50MM. It’s the second consecutive offseason during which St. Louis has signed a qualified free agent after the Cardinals signed catcher Willson Contreras away from the Cubs last winter.
The Cardinals weren’t the only known suitor for Gray’s services this winter, as the Braves have frequently been connected to the right-hander in recent weeks. It’s unclear whether the Braves ultimately made an offer to Gray, but the veteran righty represents the second front-of-the-rotation arm Atlanta has shown interest in who ultimately signed elsewhere this offseason. The club reportedly offered right-hander Aaron Nola a deal worth $162MM over six years prior to him landing with the Phillies on a seven-year, $172MM deal. While there’s still plenty of front-of-the-rotation caliber arms available this offseason, it’s worth noting that Atlanta’s financial outlook is somewhat murky and the club has already signed Reynaldo Lopez to a three-year deal with an eye toward stretching him out as a starter.
Jon Heyman of the New York Post first reported the Cardinals and Gray were likely to finalize a contract. Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reported it would be a three-year, $75MM guarantee. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the option value.
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