Cards' young flamethrower ready for MLB opportunity

January 6th, 2023

This story was excerpted from John Denton's Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click hereAnd subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

When the Cardinals faced a potential rainout of their Grapefruit League night game against the Astros last March, a change was made to the schedule and Albert Pujols, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Yadier Molina and Tyler O’Neill were moved to a daytime batting-practice session at the Spring Training complex in Jupiter, Fla.

The surprise pitcher for that impromptu BP session was Minor League flamethrower Gordon Graceffo, who had turned 22 a few days earlier and was coming off a promising season at Single-A Palm Beach. Landing that opportunity -- as daunting as it was -- said plenty about what the Cardinals thought of the prospect as they wouldn’t want an erratic and unrefined pitcher facing their top talent. What happened next were several moments that propelled Graceffo on a path that might lead him to the big leagues this season.

Not only did Graceffo use the adrenaline coursing through his veins to routinely hit 98 and 99 mph on the radar gun, but he also had some of the game’s greatest hitters leaving the batter’s box muttering to themselves. Although that was plenty memorable, it was smashes by Arenado (a mammoth home run) and Goldschmidt (an opposite-field ground-rule double) that stuck out most to Graceffo – as he confidently announced his legitimacy as an elite prospect.

“When the organization puts you in that position, it’s a boost to the confidence, and I’m glad I was able to put some of those guys away,” said Graceffo, the Cardinals’ fifth-round Draft pick in 2021. “I called my parents and let them know. You tell them about Arenado taking you 450 [feet] off the wall of the facility, that’s funny. There was some stuff on social media, and a lot of my teammates and friends reached out and said, ‘That’s crazy!’”

Graceffo, fresh off a 2022 season in which he went 10-6 with 139 strikeouts in 139 1/3 innings with High-A Peoria and Double-A Springfield, is hoping that this Spring Training will be even more notable for him -- making a push onto the Cardinals’ roster. Though he prefers to be a starter, Graceffo said he is willing to work in relief, using his swing-and-miss stuff out of the bullpen, something St. Louis desperately needs.

“If I perform similar to how I did last year, I think I have a real shot at starting with the big league team,” said Graceffo, who has relief experience from his freshman season at Villanova and in 2021 with Palm Beach. “Regardless of where I start, they’re going to put me in the best spot, and I’ll make the best of it.”

Bulked up to the 230 pounds the Cardinals wanted, Graceffo’s fastball regularly hovered in the 95-98 mph range, and he hit 100 mph several times last season. One instance came in his final start of 2022 -- a masterpiece for Double-A Springfield in which he retired the first 17 batters, took a perfect game into the sixth inning and struck out nine.

“That night was one of those where you feel like everything is working and you can put the ball where you want,” he recalled. “Once you have that, you have to capitalize. That was a great way to finish.”

That performance, combined with what Graceffo did during the impromptu outing against the Cardinals’ top sluggers last spring, likely played a role in president of baseball operations John Mozeliak mentioning after the season that the hard-throwing righty would have a shot to make the Opening Day roster.

Graceffo’s Villanova manager -- former Cardinals draftee and Twins/D-backs pitcher Kevin Mulvey -- told the flamethrower years ago that he had the stuff to make it to the Majors. Now, that opportunity is seemingly at Graceffo’s fingertips.

“In Double-A, those are legit hitters and guys who will make it in the big leagues, and once I figured that level out, everything clicked, and I felt really confident,” he said. “It’s a steppingstone and a part of the journey, and now I’m hoping to take that next step in the spring.”