Cardinals check in: What Aaron Nola’s new deal means for pitching market

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The first of the starting pitcher dominos fell Sunday afternoon, with the reported news that Aaron Nola — one of the top free-agent arms available this winter and someone whom the St. Louis Cardinals checked in on routinely in their pursuit of pitching — would return to the Philadelphia Phillies on a seven-year, $172 million deal.

Nola’s return to Philadelphia, where he has spent the entirety of his nine-year career, was not necessarily surprising. The two sides were unable to reach an extension before the season; both Nola and the Phillies were hopeful at the end of the year that a new deal could be made. It didn’t take long for that deal to come to fruition; the 31-year-old will remain in Philadelphia through 2030.

Nola’s $24.5 average annual value is lower than projected, though he reportedly took less money to remain in Philadelphia. The Cardinals were certainly interested in Nola, but given that they must address their pitching in bulk, a seven-year deal likely would’ve been out of the organization’s comfort range. In an interview with KMOX’s Tom Ackerman on Sunday, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak revealed he received a phone call from Nola’s agents earlier that morning and was not surprised Nola ended up resigning with the Phillies.

“I was aware this might be happening,” Mozeliak said. “It does sound like there’s a really strong desire to go back to Philly.”

With Nola off the board, the starting pitching market can now start being defined. The Cardinals are looking to add “at least two” starting pitchers. They will also need to replenish some depth in Triple A after declining to tender contracts to Dakota Hudson and Jake Woodford on Friday. As the rotation currently stands, only Miles Mikolas and Steven Matz are under contract for next year. Zack Thompson is a promising internal candidate to break into that rotation (or will at least have the opportunity to do so come spring). However other internal options such as Matthew Liberatore, Drew Rom, Gordon Graceffo and Michael McGreevy are either too inexperienced or too unproven to rely on at the major-league level at this time. It would be an understatement to say the Cardinals have their work cut out for them in their quest to cover innings next season.

Because of their need to add arms in volume, Mozeliak isn’t in a position to overpay for one arm. For example, landing Blake Snell (who was named the National League Cy Young Award winner on Wednesday) will likely take a deal of at least five years with an AAV between $25 and $30 million. Is that impossible for the Cardinals? Surely not, but it is improbable when factoring in how little money that would leave for other pitchers, both this offseason and in the offseasons to come.

A safer bet for St. Louis would be 34-year-old Sonny Gray, another pitcher the organization has checked in on. Because of his age, Gray wouldn’t command a five- or six-year deal. The Athletic projected a three-year, $72 million contract for Gray, which would bring Gray’s AAV to roughly $24 million. That would rank as the second-highest single-year amount, under only Paul Goldschmidt, on the team’s payroll for 2024 (per Spotrac). While that AAV might be high in the eyes of the organization, the Cardinals are not in a position to be cheap or picky. St. Louis would likely feel more comfortable about taking on that value knowing the length of the deal would be significantly shorter than what Nola inked and what Snell is likely to get.

But perhaps no free-agent starting pitcher packs as much intrigue as Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who is expected to be posted to MLB as early as Monday. When Yamamoto is officially posted, teams will have 45 days to negotiate a contract. The Cardinals will be one of those teams, though it is unclear how heavily they will pursue the 25-year-old. Given his age and his upside, St. Louis might be more inclined to consider a long-term deal and a higher AAV.

Cardinals clear path for Iván Herrera as backup catcher

That the Cardinals decided not to tender contracts to Hudson and Woodford was not all that surprising. Neither pitcher was able to find much footing in the big leagues over the past two seasons. What was somewhat surprising was the organization’s decision to non-tender Juan Yepez and Andrew Knizner. Yepez was not yet arbitration eligible and had an option remaining, but as a bat-first corner outfielder, he was considerably blocked at the major-league level. The Cardinals were not able to find a suitable trade for Yepez before the non-tender deadline, but as a 25-year-old with ample team control and solid power, it shouldn’t take long for Yepez to find a new home.

Non-tendering Knizner was the biggest shocker. Knizner still had two more years of arbitration remaining and was projected to make approximately $2 million in arbitration this year. He has been a serviceable backup catcher for the organization since debuting in 2019, but it was clear the Cardinals didn’t see him as a full-time starter last year when the club opted to sign Willson Contreras. But the decision to move on from Knizner ultimately stemmed from top catching prospect Iván Herrera’s progression in the minor leagues.

Herrera was named the organization’s minor league player of the year on Friday after posting a .297/.451/.500 line over 83 games for Memphis. He also made strides behind the plate in terms of game planning, pitch calling and framing. Those skills transferred over to Herrera’s brief stint at major-league level last year, impressing both Mozeliak and manager Oli Marmol.

“The one (decision) I think we were really torn with was (Knizner),” Mozeliak said on KMOX. “We definitely were looking to see if we could find a way to move him first. … We really wanted to clear a path for Herrera. We felt like where he is, with his age and what he could potentially do for us, these are never easy decisions but certainly felt like we had to do it.”

With Hudson, Woodford, Yepez and Knizner now all free agents, the Cardinals’ 40-man roster stands at 36.

(Photo of Sonny Gray: Jesse Johnson / USA Today)

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