'I wanted to be a Cardinal': Gray to St. Louis on 3-yr. deal

November 28th, 2023

When was going through what he described as “the anxiety and stress” of a free agent courting process he nonetheless claimed to have enjoyed thoroughly, the right-hander kept coming back to the same idea that he had held onto closely and quietly for more than a year’s time.

Gray’s idea was that he desperately wanted to be a member of the Cardinals -- an organization possessing a storied history of winning despite last season’s 71-91 mark and one that would bring him closer to his middle Tennessee home in the offseason. Gray, who turned 34 on Nov. 7, held onto that thought even when the Cardinals didn’t initially contact him and agent Bo McKinnis.

But the Cardinals did come calling, and their contract offer was equipped with the potential of four years and $80 million in guaranteed money -- a three-year deal worth $75 million plus a fourth-year team option that includes a $5 million buyout -- and a no-trade clause, per a source. On Monday, when Gray passed a physical and signed his contract, his dream became a reality and he finally became a Cardinal.

“Going into this thing. I wanted to be a Cardinal,” Gray said at his introductory news conference at Busch Stadium. “That started probably a little over a year ago. It’s a place that every time I've come here as a visitor, I've looked at the stadium and I've said, ‘Wow, this place is incredible!’

“I looked around the seats and I've seen the fans, and the fans continue to show up and they support this team. And when you talk around the league and talk to different guys who have been all over the place, everybody raves about St. Louis and the Cardinals.

“The fans -- how they support you, how the fans are hard on you and how the fans expect you to win and expect greatness -- that’s something as a player and a competitor you want. With where I am in my career, I want to win. Coming into an organization like St. Louis, with the tradition … it's just a baseball town and a baseball city and in a place that I'm thrilled to come and be a part of.”

The Cardinals’ agreement with Gray, the American League Cy Young Award runner-up this year, comes a week before the start of the MLB Winter Meetings in Nashville, some 33 miles from Gray’s hometown of Smyrna, Tenn. Gray joins a revamped rotation that features 36-year-old right-handers Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson, who signed one-year deals with the Redbirds last week.

Gray said that seeing the Cardinals sign established veterans made him even more motivated to want to be a part of the St. Louis staff.

“You want to talk about changing a pitching culture or creating and establishing a strong pitching culture, you’re bringing in Lance, bringing in Kyle and bringing in me,” Gray said while wearing a white No. 54 Cardinals jersey over his white dress shirt. “You want to talk about creating an edge and having some intent and fire from the guys who take the ball, you're definitely doing that. You want to talk about someone who takes the ball and has an edge, you'll see it.”

In 2023, Gray was 8-8 with a 2.79 ERA in 184 innings for the Twins. He had 183 strikeouts and allowed 156 hits and 55 walks. Gray has experience in the National League Central, having gone 23-20 with a 3.49 ERA for the Reds from 2019-21 before being traded to the Twins in March 2022.

Because Gray received and turned down a qualifying offer from the Twins earlier this month and his deal exceeds $50 million, Minnesota will receive a compensatory 2024 Draft pick between the first round and Competitive Balance Round A. St. Louis, meanwhile, will lose its second-highest 2024 Draft pick, as well as $500,000 from its international bonus pool for the upcoming signing period, because it did not exceed the Competitive Balance Tax threshold in 2023 and did not receive revenue sharing support.

After a 2022 season that included three stints on the injured list due to right hamstring and pectoral issues, Gray reinvented himself as a pitcher and shuffled his repertoire ahead of his excellent 2023. He essentially doubled his sweeper usage (10.3% in 2022, 20.4% in ’23), and that pitch generated a .097 opponents’ batting average, .118 slugging, and 53.2% strikeout rate. Gray topped MLB with the highest run value on sweepers (+19 runs).

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said he wanted to draft Gray out of Vanderbilt University in 2011 and that he tried trading for him six seasons ago.

“We certainly feel like we’ve accomplished something for our rotation,” Mozeliak said. “Today’s a great day for us, and we really feel good about what’s happened over the last 10 days. But there’s still two months left in the offseason, and what we really want to do is not close any doors. … But we certainly feel a lot better about our club today than we did two months ago.”