ST. LOUIS – “Pitching. Pitching. Pitching.” A sentiment echoed by Cardinals lead executive John Mozeliak months ago remains the team’s biggest priority this offseason.
The St. Louis Cardinals ended the 2023 campaign with their first losing season since 2007 and only last-place finish in the NL Central to date. Plagued by persistent pitching woes, the Cardinals finished among baseball’s worst teams in ERA (4.79), quality starts (48) and blown saves (28), all in the lower quartile of teams.
Needless to say, pitching needs to be addressed in the upcoming months if the Cardinals hope to prove the disappointing 2023 season was a fluke.
According to a live chat Monday from St. Louis Post-Dispatch Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold, “The Cardinals have Aaron Nola and Sonny Gray high on their lists of preferred targets, according to sources. They want to make an aggressive early play for a pitcher.”
Nola and Gray, both former All-Stars, are intriguing options for a St. Louis rotation seeking improvement.
Nola has proved extremely durable in nine years with the Philadelphia Phillies, starting at least 32 games in each of the last five non-pandemic-shortened seasons. His strikeout abilities (backed by a career pace of 230 over a full season) offer a different dynamic than the Cardinals traditional ground-ball rotation specialists. His recent postseason success with Philadelphia adds to his appeal, and he could have a few more prime years in him after just turning 30 years old.
Nola would almost certainly break the Cardinals records for the largest contract awarded to a pitcher and a free agent. Initial projections call for a deal worth roughly $150 million over six years.
The upside of Aaron Nola is hard to match, but he had some bumps in the road last year, allowing four runs or more in nearly half of his starts last season. While the Cardinals have interest in Nola, recent comments make it seem he’d be open to staying with Philadelphia if new contract terms make sense.
Sonny Gray, who just turned 34 years old, is coming off one of his best big-league seasons (2.79 ERA over 184 innings pitched) and is even a Top-3 finalist in the AL Cy Young voting.
Gray was a major reason for the Minnesota Twins’ surprise run, and bidders will certainly be interested in his ability to limit home runs with just eight allowed over 32 starts last season. His durability doesn’t quite match Nola, having not pitched past 200 innings since 2015, but Gray is also rich of experience on playoff-contending teams.
Gray could be open to a smaller deal in terms of years due to his age. He expressed after Minnesota’s postseason exit that he wants a new deal with “a place where you feel wanted” and that money is not the only driving factor.
Given his experience and perceived mindset, the Cardinals could entertain a deal and reportedly “believe they can offer Gray an appealing deal,” per Goold. Current projections call for a three- or four-year deal worth somewhere in the $70-90 million range.
One caveat to potentially signing either Nola or Gray, the Cardinals would likely forfeit a high second-round or third-round pick in next year’s draft as both received qualifying offers from their previous ballclubs.
Baseball analysts Tim Dierkes, Anthony Franco and Darragh McDonald all predict Nola to be the top target for the Cardinals and that St. Louis could also be in contention for Gray. MLB.com’s Mark Fiensand also says the Cardinals are among the Top-3 fits for both pitchers.
If the Cardinals are looking for additional options beyond Nola and Gray, there are many other experienced starting pitcher options available on the free agent market, including:
- Yoshinobu Yamamoto – Japan
- Blake Snell
- Jordan Montgomery (former Cardinal)
- Eduardo Rodriguez
- Lucas Giolito
- Seth Lugo
- Nick Martinez
- Michael Wacha (former Cardinal)
As it stands now, Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz (if healthy) are likely the only two Cardinals rotation locks. Outside of free agency, St. Louis could also explore the trade market, perhaps trading from a plethora of middle infielders or outfielders to bring over a possible rotation piece.
It’s early into the offseason, but now’s the time for the St. Louis Cardinals to weigh their options, and it could be a matter of time before someone makes a splash in the pitcher’s market. The Cardinals projected rotation could start taking shape over the next few months, if not weeks or days, based on their offseason approach.