As major leaguers arrive in camp, Cardinals make first move, sign pitcher returning from Japan | Derrick Goold: Birdland

JUPITER, Fla. — Before lunchtime on the first full day since free agency flung open, the Cardinals had made a familiar move for some pitching depth.

The Cardinals signed righthander Drew VerHagen, a former Detroit Tigers’ pitcher who has spent the previous two seasons pitching for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan’s highest league. VerHagen agreed to a two-year deal worth $5.5 million, a source confirmed.

The deal is the first by a free agent signed after the 99-day lockout.

Outfielders Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill were among the first major-leaguers to report to the site and use the field to work out the first day they were permitted back on site. The Cardinals’ report day for players is Sunday. They plan to conduct physicals and their first official workout Monday on their side of Roger Dean Stadium.

VerHagen, 31, is a 6-foot-6 righthander, and in the majors he’s 10-10 with a 5.11 ERA in 127 games. He spent six seasons with Detroit. In Japan, he was a teammate with Nick Martinez, another pitcher the Cardinals had interest in this offseason before the lockout froze transactions. Martinez signed a four-year, $20-million contract with San Diego right before the market closed.

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VerHagen will come to spring training as a starter, compete for a job on the pitching staff, and perhaps fit the role the Cardinals are auditioning to add to the mix. They would like to have a flex pitcher, or swingman — a pitcher who can absorb middle innings, cover leftover innings, or start some games depending on need and help manage the workload of the rotation.

The Cardinals also are considering in-house candidates for the job like Alex Reyes and Jake Woodford, though they’ve signed other competitors, too.

Like fellow Cardinals pitchers Miles Mikolas and newcomer Aaron Brooks, VerHagen went abroad to reinvent himself and then make a play to return to the majors. As a starter for Nippon Ham, VerHagen had a 3.84 ERA in 2021. In two seasons in Japan, he had a 13-14 record with a 3.51 ERA and 215 strikeouts in 207 2/3 innings.

That was a considerable uptick from his major-league performance: In 2019, he had a 5.90 ERA mostly as a reliever for the Tigers and allowed 93 batters to reach base by walk or hit in 58 innings.

Before heading abroad, VerHagen did have the kind of groundball rate that the Cardinals chase. He had a 51.7% groundball rate in 2019, and during his six seasons in the majors he had a 53.6% groundball rate.

Brooks, who spent the past two seasons in South Korea, will join the major-league camp when it opens as a non-roster invitee. He’s set to make $1.4 million if he reaches the majors.

The Cardinals have scheduled a Friday afternoon press conference featuring chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and manager Oliver Marmol. It will be held at Roger Dean Stadium.

The Cardinals remain active in their search to add at least one reliever.


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