With the right increase in money and years and the added securities that come only from gold, the Cardinals outbid multiple suitors to land a coveted starter and, in an unexpected, competitive perk, help irk a billionaire owner out east.
The Cardinals and lefty Steven Matz agreed to a four-year, $44-million contract late Tuesday night, multiple sources with knowledge of the contract confirmed to the Post-Dispatch. The deal will be finalized after Thanksgiving pending a physical scheduled for this weekend. Matz, 30, chose the Cardinals ahead of offers from his first team, the Mets, and his most recent team, Toronto, as well as at least three other clubs. The Cardinals sweetened their appeal with the fourth year on the contract.
No other free-agent starter threw a higher percentage of sinkers in 2021 and Matz appealed to the Cardinals because of his willingness to utilize the defense behind him and the record five Gold Glove Award winners the Cardinals will have returning.
Matz was drawn by that pitch to him, conversations over Zoom with team officials, and the clubhouse culture he learned about, a source close to the lefty described.
Cardinals officials, per team policy, declined comment on any pending deals with free agents. The Mets’ new owner Steve Cohen had no such reservation grumbling on social media.
“I’m not happy this morning,” Cohen tweeted.
He added a comment critical of Matz’s agent’s approach with the team that drafted Matz in 2009, debuted him 2015, and then traded him less than 12 months ago. A New York native, Matz had expressed interest in returning to his first team. In a statement provided reporters in New York, Matz’s agent, Rob Martin, wrote how it is “unfortunate that he chose to take his frustrations to Twitter. I will not do the same. … Steven Matz grew up a Mets fan, loved his time there, and continues to invest in the New York community through (charitable) efforts. As a result of all that, there was a strong pull to the Mets.
“Steven is and always will be grateful to the Mets and Mets fans,” the statement continued, “but he now looks forward to his next chapter with the tremendous franchise in St. Louis.”
Matz completes the Cardinals’ rotation several days ahead of what is likely to be a complete halt of the free-agent market when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires next week.
John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, said earlier this month that the team could “name” four starters: veteran Adam Wainwright, opening day starter Jack Flaherty, and two righthanders returning from incomplete seasons, Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas. To that group, Mozeliak said he wanted to add a free-agent pitcher who could be counted on for 150 innings. Internally, the Cardinals had a preference to find a lefty — especially as they followed the template used this past season to overhaul the rotation.
They saw the success veteran lefties Jon Lester and J.A. Happ had with the Cardinals’ superior defense behind them and catcher Yadier Molina in front of them and wanted to create that if possible with a younger upgrade to the rotation.
While the Cardinals explored talks with other starting pitchers, including Marcus Stroman and some conversation with the agent for Max Scherzer, their price points will be considerably higher than Matz’s. The contract includes a signing bonus that reduces the in-season cost and bonuses that could net Matz, based on games started, an additional $4 million.
He does not come tethered to a qualifying offer so the Cardinals will not have to forfeit a draft pick to sign the lefty.
Matz’s salary essentially slides into the spot vacated by Carlos Martinez, one of a handful of players and salaries the Cardinals have shed from the 2020 roster. Including money paid traded players like Dexter Fowler this past season, the Cardinals have around $63 million coming off their payroll from 2021. With Matz’s addition, they have slightly more than that added for the 2022 payroll. The bulk of that will be Nolan Arenado’s salary and around $30 million owed him this coming season. The Cardinals also have seven arbitration-eligible players who will receive raises, some of them, like outfielder Tyler O’Neill, significant. Those upticks along with raises for Wainwright and Molina and the Cardinals could have around $66 million added in commitments.
Mozeliak told the Post-Dispatch earlier this month the team expects an increase in payroll from 2021 to the 2022 season as full capacity at Busch Stadium returns for a full season.
The bet the Cardinals are making with Matz is that they’ve acquired him at the start of his ascension and that he’s trending toward realizing the promise he had as a younger starter with the Mets before injuries interrupted multiple seasons. Matz struggled in 2020 to a 0-5 record with a 9.68 ERA and 14 homers in 30 2/3 innings. The Mets traded him to Toronto for a minimal return in January, and thrust into the ferocious American League East — Matz excelled.
The lefty went 14-7 with a 3.82 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 150 2/3 innings. In his final 11 starts, Matz went 6-1 with a 2.69 ERA and spoke to reporters about finding his best sync on the mound. He featured his sinking fastball more often, got more swings against it, and continued to get groundballs with it. He used his slider less frequently but had a higher rate of strikes on it and a lower rate of pitches being put in play.
Of starters who threw at least 2,000 pitches in 2021, no free agent had a higher use of his sinker than Matz’s 51.9%. His former teammate Stroman was top 10 at 42.3%. Matz’s groundball rate also was above average and is 47.1% for his career. The Cardinals believe welcoming Matz to the pitcher heaven that Busch has become and the golden-halo of fielders will heighten how his skills play.
After a few years of limited innings due to injuries radiating from his left elbow, Matz has made at least 29 starts in the past three full seasons. The last Cardinal lefty to make at least 20 starts in consecutive years was Jaime Garcia a decade ago.
At the same time they pursued starters, the Cardinals have been shopping for a reliever to add to their late-inning mix as a setup man or complement to Giovanny Gallegos. They have explored a reunion with Luis Garcia — another one of the sinker success stories from the past summer — and the marketplace also includes groundball-getters from Archie Bradley to former Cardinal Joe Kelly.
The CBA expires next Wednesday and that has created an urgency in the market for starters and could lead to post-holiday shopping sprees this weekend.
Hours after Cohen’s tweet and the New York hot minute it created, the Mets did have a countermove Wednesday. They announced the signing of outfielder Nick Plummer to a major-league deal that gives him what the Cardinals would not – a spot on the 40-man roster. The Cardinals, while maintaining a hope of re-signing Plummer to a minor-league deal, notified the 23rd overall pick from 2015 that he would not be added to the roster. Plummer elected to become a free agent and, like Matz, had his choice.