New St. Louis Cardinals pitcher already taking a leadership role as spring training begins

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“Let’s go through that one more time,” Sonny Gray hollered to Willson Contreras from 60 feet, six inches away. “Oh-oh to a righty. Start in the middle, get into their hands, be aggressive. Make them swing the bat.”

Then, a push off the rubber simultaneously with a grunt. Finally, a satisfied assessment of the delivery: “[freaking] nasty.”

Pitchers and catchers were required to report to spring training on Tuesday, and workout schedules remained light with the first official structured team outing set for Wednesday. Gray, though, has been in town for a number of days, getting acclimated to a new team and new surroundings and kicking off his spring training workload.

That includes, evidently, a great deal of narration. Nearly all of the players and coaches in camp stopped what they were doing and huddled around the small collection of bullpen mounds in order to watch Gray work, and the audience was much more out of the ordinary than the vocalizing.

“I just think seeing something, picturing something, vocalizing something, I think it’s easier,” Gray explained. “You just tell yourself, hey, throw the ball right down the middle…it’s just how I am, I guess. It’s just how I am, what I do.

“It’s like telling yourself to do something, and then going and doing it. I think that’s easier than keeping all the things bottled up. For me, it’s better to just get things out.”

Arriving to a new team is old hat to Gray; the Cardinals are his fifth. For perhaps the first time, though, part of the appeal to his new squad in acquisition was his capacity for leadership and his eagerness to seize that mantle. Part of his spring, he explained, is making sure to meet both teammates and staff on the field, off the field, and everywhere in between. He joked about meeting someone one day and then again the next day, taking the time to first apologize and then learn where they fit in the fabric of the franchise.

On the field, though, the comfort is easier. Gray and Lance Lynn spent time Monday watching closer Ryan Helsley throw his bullpen session without any mound time of their own. That, Gray explained, is useful not only in helping Helsley improve, but also in discovering whether there’s anything he can take from his new teammates.

“I do that a lot,” Gray said. “Not just in spring, [but] throughout the season as well. That’s something that we’re hoping to incorporate here…I think the only way that I could potentially help Tink [Hence] or [Lynn] or [Helsley] or any of these guys is just to watch them and listen and ask questions and vice versa, for them to watch me and listen and ask questions.”

For all the conversation this winter about leadership and reclaiming team culture, that is a depiction of those goals in action. Gray’s bullpen drew a crowd, but all of his work in camp’s early going has drawn the same. The attention he’s received from his teammates isn’t the result of his having been declared a leader but rather his decision to act as one.

His most important job is to get hitters out. These actions are not terribly far down the list.

“I think the only way to have a really good staff is everyone leads at different points of the season, at different points of the day,” Gray said. “Everyone leads in their own right. I am a vocal guy. There are other vocal guys that are on the staff as well…I think it’s just a revolving door that everyone is open and accepted.”

With Gray’s multi-year deal to front the rotation comes expectations that will be difficult to handle. The Cardinals had the second-fewest strikeouts in the National League in 2023 and the fourth-worst earned run average; those numbers have to improve by leaps and bounds to turn a last place team into a contender.

Making that possible was the center of the winter, and the three new starters – Kyle Gibson in addition to Gray and Lynn – are tasked with carrying a great deal of that responsibility. Gray is the only one of the three with a contract guarantee lasting past this season, and he is clearly the one of the three taking steps to assert himself as the next and newest fixture among Cardinals starters.

“I view myself as a leader,” he said, “and I would hope that everyone on the staff views themselves as a leader as well. Just with also openness to learn from everyone else around us.

“I’ve enjoyed everyone that I’ve met and that we have…seems like there’s a lot of good people around, so that’s a good thing. I think it’s just putting in a lot of time, especially early, to be open to things. I think that’ll just continue to happen for a while.”

The planning is long term. The results must come quickly.