The Cardinals added the first two of what they expect to be at least three starting pitchers this week, agreeing to a reunion with veteran righty Lance Lynn on a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $11MM and another one-year deal with Kyle Gibson worth $12MM. They’ll still look to add another arm, be it via free agency or trade. Among the more high-profile names they’re considering, per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, are NPB ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto and AL Cy Young runner-up Sonny Gray. Goold’s report was published prior to the Cardinals’ agreement with Gibson, though it’s hard to imagine a one-year deal for a veteran innings eater would derail the club’s plans for higher-profile targets.
Pursuits of both right-handers were generally expected from a Cardinals club looking to add as many as three starting pitchers this winter — with at least one playoff-caliber arm among the presumed preferences. Goold has previously linked the Cards and Yamamoto, and he now writes that Yamamoto does not have any geographical preferences as he tests MLB free agency. He’s open to pitching on either coast or somewhere in between.
Despite his lack of MLB experience, the 25-year-old Yamamoto is widely projected to land the largest contract of any non-Shohei Ohtani pitcher this offseason. He’s considered by big league scouts to be a potential No. 1 or 2 starter in North American ball, and his combination of age and sterling track record make him an excessively rare type of free agent. Yamamoto has won the Sawamura Award, Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award, in three consecutive seasons and just wrapped up a career-best campaign with a 1.21 ERA. He’s posted a sub-2.00 ERA in four of the past five seasons in NPB, fanning more than 27% of his opponents against a pristine 5.7% walk rate during that stretch.
Bidding on Yamamoto is expected to be fierce, perhaps pushing north of $200MM. (MLBTR ranked Yamamoto second among this offseason’s free agents and predicted a nine-year, $225MM deal.) He’s already drawn interest from a wide array of teams, reportedly including the Phillies (even after re-signing Aaron Nola), D-backs, Tigers, Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, Giants, Mets, Dodgers, Cubs and surely more.
Gray, 34, would be a less-expensive but still high-profile upgrade to the St. Louis staff. He finished second to Gerrit Cole in American League Cy Young voting this season on the heels of a 2.79 ERA in 184 innings for the AL Central-champion Twins. He rejected a qualifying offer at season’s end, so he’d cost the Cards a draft pick and $500K of their international bonus pool, though for a pitcher of his track record, that’s perhaps not a detriment.
Gray’s age figures to limit the length of offers he ultimately commands. It’d be somewhat surprising to see him sign for more than four years, as even a four-year pact would run through his age-37 season — an age at which teams have tended to cap long-term deals in free agency. Gray is also on the radar for the Phillies, Braves and Red Sox. The Twins have voiced that they’d love to keep Gray as well — and Gray has said publicly that interest in a return is mutual — but with Minnesota expected to scale back payroll by around $10-20MM amid uncertainty regarding their television rights deal, it’s tough to envision them making the top bid.
In addition to their ongoing free-agent pursuits, the Cards are well-positioned to explore the trade market for potential rotation help. The team still generally has a glut of young position players, with more names on the roster than at-bats to go around. Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, Lars Nootbaar, Jordan Walker, Alec Burleson, Brendan Donovan, Tommy Edman, Nolan Gorman, Masyn Winn and Ivan Herrera simply don’t all have paths to regular playing time — particularly with veterans like Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and Willson Contreras locked into the infield corners and catching duties.
As has been the case dating back to the summer, the Cardinals appear open to trading O’Neill and Carlson, per Katie Woo of The Athletic. However, just as it was last offseason and this past summer, Nootbaar is expected to stay in St. Louis. The 26-year-old hit .261/.367/.418 last year and cemented himself as the team’s center fielder. Injuries have limited Nootbaar in his early career, but he’s proven he can draw walks at an elite level while displaying intriguing batted-ball metrics and showing enough pop to top 20 homers per year if he can avoid the injured list. Add in his speed and ability to play all over the outfield, and he’s a valuable player whom the Cards understandably view as a core piece.
It’s not long ago that Carlson was viewed as a core piece, but after a pair of lackluster seasons at the dish, it seems the Cards are largely ready to move on from the one-time top prospect. It was something of a surprise that the switch-hitting center fielder wasn’t traded at the deadline, and it’d be even more surprising if he went the whole offseason without changing hands. The 25-year-old Carlson has batted .230/.316/.364 over the past two seasons — a far cry from the .266/.343/.437 output he turned in back in 2021. With three seasons of club control remaining and a projected $1.8MM salary in arbitration (via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz), he should still draw interest.
That said, it’s doubtful a trade of Carlson or O’Neill (a free agent next winter looking to rebound from a down year) can command the type of rotation upgrade that now looks increasingly necessary after signing Lynn and Gibson. If the Cards are indeed focused on upgrading the top half of their staff, they’d perhaps need to make more controllable members of the roster available. Woo writes, however, that the Cards “prefer to hang onto” infielders Nolan Gorman and Brendan Donovan. Presumably, first baseman/outfielder Alec Burleson is in the mix of names that could be moved, but his own lackluster production through his first 400 MLB plate appearances (plus his limited defensive ceiling) has probably deflated his stock a bit.
All in all, it’s a bit surprising that the Cards jumped the market for a pair of back-end innings eaters. Doing so ensured the stable, bulk innings the front office no doubt coveted, but it also only ratchets up the pressure to come away with a more meaningful upgrade at the front of the group. “More moves to come,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said today, per Goold.