St. Louis Cardinals check one off pre-holiday to-do list with signing of lefty starter

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The St. Louis Cardinals checked a major item off their pre-Thanksgiving to-do list late Tuesday night, coming to an agreement with free agent left-handed pitcher Steven Matz.

Matz agreed to a four-year contract which will pay him a minimum of $44 million and includes incentives that could push the value of the deal to $48 million.

The Cardinals have not yet officially confirmed the deal, which was initially reported by Jeff Passan of ESPN.com and has since been confirmed by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic and Anthony DiComo of MLB.com.

Matz, 30, went 14-7 with a 3.82 earned run average in 29 starts for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2021. In six seasons with the New York Mets, he started 107 games as he battled injury issues, including nerve irritation and bone spurs in his pitching elbow as well as some tightness in his shoulder.

For the Cardinals, Matz represents an important supplement to a rotation which is likely to begin 2022 without at least five pitchers who made at least 11 starts for the club in 2021 (Kwang Hyun Kim, 21; Carlos Martínez, 16; John Gant, 14; Jon Lester, 12; J.A. Happ, 11).

The Cardinals suffered from a lack of starting rotation depth throughout the 2021 season and paid the price both in games lost and trade capital. They waited throughout a stagnant June and needed additional pitching ballast in the form of Happ, Lester and Wade LeBlanc to float them back into contention.

Injuries, too, played an important part in those struggles, and the Cardinals expect to enter next season with both Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson returned to full health. With Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright set to fill out the rotation alongside Matz, the Cardinals now have the ability to evaluate the remaining starters on the free agent market with less urgency and determine whether a pitcher such as Max Scherzer or Marcus Stroman fits within the confines of their preferred spending.

Throughout Matz’s career, he has consistently offered a walk rate below league average and a ground ball rate above league average. St. Louis has prioritized those characteristics in each of the pitchers it has acquired since midseason. With a defense recognized as the best in the major leagues with five Gold Glovers in 2021, Matz fits the design of a club eager to cement its strategy as one which relies on its defensive stars to provide the team with outs.

Whether the team will pursue additional upgrades to the rotation beyond Matz is unclear.

Certainly, the five experienced starters now on the roster represent a top-quality stable, but each of the five also carries significant injury history. Matz’s place in the payroll in roster structure largely acts as a dollar-for-dollar replacement for Martínez, and Mikolas for one offered uneven results in his return from a flexor tendon injury which cost him all of the 2020 season as well as most of 2021.

Work continues on the construction of the bullpen.

Righty Luis García, who covered important high leverage innings after his mid-season signing, remains a free agent, and the Cardinals are exploring a return engagement for him as well as potential upgrades to that spot in their bullpen.

One possibility is veteran reliever Archie Bradley, who has experience as both a closer and a set-up man and whose agent, Jay Franklin, is the brother of long-time Cardinals special assistant and former closer Ryan Franklin.

The Chicago White Sox signed righthander Kendall Graveman to a reported three-year, $24 million contract earlier on Tuesday which may, in part, set the market for late-game relievers. The Cardinals, who have in recent history been burned by poor investments in free agent relief pitchers, are likely to be hesitant to make a similar commitment this winter.

Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association also came to an agreement on Tuesday to move the deadline for tendering contracts to players up from Dec. 2 to Nov. 30. In doing so, players who are non-tendered will be able to reach free agency and receive clarity regarding their situations in advance of an expected lockout which will freeze transactions around the league.

Those factors, in addition to several free agent starters coming to agreements with teams earlier this week, set the market in motion in such a way that the Cardinals were determined to reach an agreement with a starter prior to Thanksgiving. Reports from Jon Heyman of MLB Network, among others, suggested that as many as eight teams were in the bidding for Matz as recently as Tuesday morning.

With a week to go before a long winter’s nap, the Cardinals do at least have the certainty of knowing they have control of a starting rotation which will allow them to remain contenders in 2022.