The Cardinals acted quickly to reshape their rotation this offseason, signing right-handers Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn within a span of a week. They’ve since shipped outfielder Tyler O’Neill to the Red Sox in a trade that netted a pair of potential bullpen arms, but they’re not done looking for help in their relief corps. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported earlier this week that the Cards have at least held internal discussions about free agent righty Hector Neris, and Mark Feinsand of MLB.com reports that the Cardinals hosted star NPB lefty Yuki Matsui for a meeting in St. Louis just yesterday. Goold also again linked the Cards to free agent Phil Maton, to whom they’ve been previously tied.
The meeting with Matsui is the more notable development at the moment. Reports out of Japan back in October pegged the Cardinals as a team with interest in the five-time NPB All-Star, but a sitdown in St. Louis is a more concrete indicator.
The 28-year-old Matsui has saved 30 or more games for the Rakuten Golden Eagles on six different occasions, including this past season’s career-high mark of 39. He pitched 57 1/3 innings in 2023 and worked to a scintillating 1.57 ERA, giving him three straight seasons with an ERA that clocked in under 2.00. Matsui also fanned nearly a third of his opponents and turned in a 5.9% walk rate. Dating back to 2019, the southpaw boasts a 2.20 ERA, 35.8% strikeout rate and 9.4% walk rate.
Matsui’s track record in Japan is clearly excellent, but there’s at least some reason to think MLB clubs might have some trepidation. He’s listed at just 5’8″ and 167 pounds — a Tim Collins-esque frame that rarely has found much success in the big leagues. MLBTR spoke to multiple scouts and evaluators about Matsui and other international free agents prior to the onset of free agency and received mixed reviews, though Matsui did draw praise for his slider and deceptive delivery. Every team’s opinion on Matsui will vary, of course, and it stands to reason that there are big league clubs that believe he can be a viable late-inning reliever in North American ball — even if he can’t quite replicate his staggering NPB numbers.
Because of his lengthy track record in NPB — he’s pitched 10 full seasons despite his youth — Matsui accrued enough service time to be a free agent who can sign in MLB without being subject to the MLB/NPB posting system. (NPB requires nine years of service to become an unrestricted free agent.) That fact, coupled with his age and his year-over-year excellence could help to mitigate concerns about Matsui’s size and lead to a multi-year deal.
Neris, meanwhile, is more of a known commodity. He’s accrued more than eight years of MLB service time since debuting with the Phillies back in 2014 and has regularly been a high-leverage option for both the Phillies and Astros — the only two clubs for whom he’s pitched to this point in his career. Neris logged 68 1/3 innings with the ’Stros in 2023, posting a pristine 1.71 ERA in his second season with Houston. His two-year, $17MM deal with Houston contained a club option for 2025, but a clause in his contract converted that to a player option depending on Neris’ workload. He remained healthy and effective in his time with Houston and wound up vesting that player option, which he declined in search of another multi-year deal.
Last year’s shiny ERA is certainly eye-catching, though Neris’ 11.4% walk rate and tiny .219 average on balls in play are among the reasons that fielding-independent metrics are more bearish on his most recent performance (3.83 FIP, 3.89 SIERA). Those are still fine marks, of course, and Neris still fanned 28.2% of his opponents with swinging-strike and chase rates (14.1% and 35.1%, respectively) that were well north of the league average. Dating back to 2018, Neris sports a terrific 31.3% strikeout rate. He’s also avoided the injured list almost entirely in his big league career, with his only IL trip coming back in 2020, when he spent three weeks on the Covid-related IL.
Ryan Helsley will likely reprise his role as the Cardinals’ closer and be supported by Giovanny Gallegos and out-of-options southpaw JoJo Romero next season. The remainder of the Cardinals’ bullpen is a bit more fluid, with Andre Pallante, Zack Thompson, Nick Robertson (acquired from Boston for O’Neill) and Matthew Liberatore among the options for manager Oli Marmol. The Cardinals’ activity thus far has pushed their payroll a bit north of $175MM, but president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has previously hinted that there’s room to further add to that figure.