Gray ready to lead Cards' rotation on and off the field

February 13th, 2024

JUPITER, Fla. -- Pitching with a purpose on the first day pitchers and catchers officially reported to Spring Training, new Cardinals right-hander took total control of the side session by calling his shot and then executing perfectly.

Then, for good measure, he confidently corrected the praise given by his new batterymate.

“0-0 [count], righty [hitter], start in the middle [of the plate] and get it to their hands,” Gray barked in the direction of catcher Willson Contreras. “Be aggressive and make them swing the bat.”

Then, after Gray fired a pitch on the inner half of the plate at what would have been knee-high for a batter, Contreras offered up a good-natured, “Atta boy!” to the Cardinals prized free agent acquisition.

Already burning with the white-hot intensity usually reserved for an MLB big-game setting, Gray fired back with analysis he found to be more accurate.

“[Freaking] nasty!” he said with a glare.

Gray’s execution and fiery response was just one moment from Tuesday’s official report day, but it offered a telling glimpse into the nuance and detail that the 34-year-old right-hander pours into his prep work for the season. That obviously wasn’t lost on other Cards pitchers and catchers, who jammed into the area behind the bullpen mound to watch Gray’s abbreviated, 15-pitch session.

“What I take away from Sonny Gray is his mindset because that tells me a lot about his game,” Contreras raved. “The way he went through his bullpen was impressive. I’m really excited for what he’s going to bring to the table … Like I told Sonny, we have the same attitude in games and that’s going to help us out; we want to beat somebody and we’re not making friends.”

A season after their pitching bottomed out and was one of the primary reasons for their worst finish in 33 years, the Cardinals worked furiously throughout the offseason to rebuild their staff. Their top target was Gray, who signed a three-year deal that guarantees him at least $80 million. Gray is coming off a 2023 season where he made 32 starts, had MLB’s third-best ERA (2.79) and finished second in American League Cy Young award voting.

To get back to that point this season with the Cardinals, Gray said he tries to approach each throwing session -- be it under the easy, breezy conditions of Spring Training or potentially before 56,000 at Dodger Stadium on Opening Day -- with a goal in mind. Pitching with a purpose is something he finds fun because it creates competition, even if it’s just him versus himself.

“The most important, the most fun and the most enjoyable part of my day is when I do all of the prep work to get outside and then pick up a baseball and start throwing,” Gray said. “It’s what I do. I try to have fun with it, but also take it seriously. I don’t like to just pick up a ball and throw for the sake of throwing. I want to get something out of it every day.”

Upon signing with the Cardinals in late November, Gray opened some eyes when he boldly stated that he has zero desire to tip his cap to batters at the plate, smile and wave at the opposition or be friendly with foes. The Cardinals are hopeful that Gray’s fiery competitiveness and willingness to work will be infectious on the staff and spread throughout their clubhouse.

President of baseball operations John Mozeliak and manager Oliver Marmol have mentioned repeatedly that a downfall in veteran leadership was one of the contributing factors in last year’s 71-91 record, and it led to the club pursuing gritty and proven veteran pitchers Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson and Gray over the offseason. For what it’s worth, Gray said he has no fear in being looked to as the leader of the pitching staff and as someone willing to set the tempo with his intensity and work ethic.

“I accept all responsibility and all the [leadership] things with open arms, but we also have four other guys who have a ton of experience,” said Gray, who included incumbent starters Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz. “I am a vocal guy and there are other vocal guys on the staff as well. I may lead one day and then somebody else leads. I would hope guys come to me with questions and I’ll do the same. I’ll go to anybody who can make me a better pitcher and ask questions. If you truly want to get better and you truly are in this to win a World Series, it’s a constant revolving door of [leadership]. I view myself as a leader and I would hope everyone on our staff views themselves that way as well.”