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Early shoppers: Cardinals finalizing four-year deal with lefty starter Matz to beat holiday rush
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Early shoppers: Cardinals finalizing four-year deal with lefty starter Matz to beat holiday rush

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Mariners Blue Jays Baseball

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Steven Matz throws to a Seattle Mariners batter during the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

The Cardinals joined in the pre-holiday shopping spree on starting pitchers late Tuesday night to land a lefthanded boost for their rotation.

Steven Matz, a 14-game winner with Toronto this past season, agreed on a multi-year deal with the Cardinals on Tuesday, according to two sources. The Post-Dispatch had previously revealed the Cardinals’ interest in Matz earlier this month and reported Tuesday they had made an offer to him.

The lefty agreed to a four-year, $44-million contract, the Post-Dispatch confirmed. The deal includes a signing bonus that reduces the per-season cost, and Matz has the chance to earn $4 million in bonuses, likely through games started.

Any finalized agreement is pending a physical, a source said.

That physical will not take place until after the Thanksgiving holiday, so the announcement of the deal by the team is not expected for several days. There is still time to do so before next week's expected labor stoppage.

Matz became the latest starter landed before Thanksgiving and a week ahead of a possible freeze of all transactions. The lefty intended to make a decision by Wednesday, the eve of the holiday and a week before the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. It's likely the owners will impose a lockout at that time, when negotiations with free agents and signings will cease until a new CBA is in place.

The Cardinals had been in talks with multiple free-agent starters and described by a rival team as "clearly" aggressive in their search for an addition to the rotation. Matz attended the General Manager Meetings in person to meet with interested teams in Carlsbad, Calif., earlier this month.

He received interest from both of his former teams, the Mets and Blue Jays, and new Mets' owner Steve Cohen griped on Twitter early Wednesday morning that he was "not happy" with the outcome.

John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, told the Post-Dispatch at the annual GM Meetings that the team wanted to have some "protection" for its pitching depth and wanted to add a higher-end starter. The goal, according to one source, was to sign a starter who could be considered one of the top three in the rotation entering a playoff series.

“I would say a guy you could count on for 150 innings,” Mozeliak said earlier this month. “Someone who is going to take advantage of our defense, take advantage of our ballpark, and have a lot of success. That would be a great way to look at it.”

Matz fits.

Matz, 30, spent the past year with the Blue Jays and went 14-7 with a 3.82 ERA in 29 starts. In 150 2/3 innings, the lefty struck out 144 and walked only 43. In his final 11 starts of this past season, Matz went 6-1 with a 2.69 ERA and nearly as many strikeouts (52) as hits (58) in 60 1/3 innings.

Mozeliak mentioned the 150-inning mark, and Matz has pitched more than 160 innings only once in his career, throwing 160 1/3 in 2019. 

The Cardinals entered the offseason looking for a starter to add to the rotation and prioritized one who could utilize the team’s superior defense and perhaps perform better as a result. Matz had the additional appeal of not entering the market tethered to a qualifying offer so the Cardinals do not forfeit a draft pick to sign him.

Of starters with at least 2,000 pitches thrown in 2021, Matz was one of the league leaders when it came to throwing a sinker. More than half of his pitches — 51.9% — were sinkers, and as a result he also was among the league-leaders in groundball rates. In 2021, he got a groundball 45.5% of the time, and in his career Matz has a 47.5% groundball rate.

Finalizing a deal with Matz completes the Cardinals' rotation based on comments from Mozeliak earlier this month. He said the team "could name" four starters returning.

The lefty joins returning veteran and staff leader Adam Wainwright, opening day starter Jack Flaherty, sinkerballer Dakota Hudson, and former All-Star Miles Mikolas. Hudson and Mikolas are coming off two seasons interrupted by injury, though both had strong finishes to the 2021 season.

The Cardinals also intend to ready former closers Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks as starters for spring training and will have righthander Jake Woodford and rookie Johan Oviedo available as depth. The Cardinals intend to have Reyes, Hicks, and Woodford available for multiple-inning relief roles and possible spot starts as they consider workloads throughout the rotation.

A second-round pick by the Mets in 2009, Matz spent six seasons in Queens and finished sixth in the National League's Rookie of the Year voting in 2016. The 6-foot-2 lefty and New York native was 31-41 with a 4.35 ERA in 112 games (107 starts) for the Mets. He missed chunks of several seasons dealing with injuries that included a bone spur in his left elbow that had to be removed, nerve irritation in the elbow, and a soreness that he told reporters was an issue with his flexor tendon. That limited him to 66 2/3 innings in 2017.

During the shortened season of 2020, Matz struggled with the Mets, going 0-5 with a 9.68 ERA in nine games (six starts). He had trouble keeping the ball down, allowing 14 home runs in 30.2 innings pitched.

A January trade to Toronto took Matz to the grueling American League East — and he thrived. In addition to the groundball rates the Cardinals coveted, he had a 6.6% walk rate and pitched with a flyball rate and home run rate suited for the pitcher-friendly atmosphere at Busch Stadium. During the season, Matz praised Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker for sharpening how he used his pitches and helping him reintroduce a slider that he ditched during his final seasons with the Mets.

Matz's fastball has averaged 94.5 mph the last two seasons, and he also features a changeup and a curveball.

“The big thing for me early is just commanding all the pitches," Matz told Sportsnet during spring training 2021. "When you can command all your pitches, you just feel more confident — because you can throw any pitch in any count. So, I definitely think I'm confident.”

In 2021, Kwang Hyun Kim became the first Cardinals lefty in five years to make at least 20 starts for the club. The last lefty to maintain residence in the rotation and have multiple seasons of at least 20 starts was Jaime Garcia from 2010 to 2016.

Garcia is the only lefty for the Cardinals how has back-to-back seasons with at least 20 starts since two pitchers, Rheal Cormier and Donovan Osborne, did that in 1992-93.

In addition to a starter, the Cardinals intend to add a late-inning reliever from outside the organization. They have had some discussions with Luis Garcia about a return, and they have also explored other free-agent options with the goal of acquiring a reliever who could be a setup man for closer Giovanny Gallegos.

The Cardinals re-signed lefty T. J. McFarland earlier this month and added some infield depth at shortstop via minor-league moves.    

This is breaking news story that happened after the final deadline for the Wednesday print edition of the Post-Dispatch. It will be updated.

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman shares thoughts about Steven Matz, the Cardinals’ new starting pitcher. And, as always, Hochman picks a random Cards card out of the hat.

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

dgoold@post-dispatch.com

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