This offseason, the Cardinals had a few goals. They wanted to get a bat for the middle of the order and checked that off with Paul Goldschmidt. They wanted a left-handed bat, perhaps for the bench. It remains to be seen whether Drew Robinson is actually said bat, but they did trade Patrick Wisdom for Robinson to see if he might be. Finally, they wanted to go out and work on the bullpen, most notably from the left side. Just in time for the Christmas break, the Cards seem to have checked that box as well, close to terms with left-handed relief ace Andrew Miller.
Let’s get this out of the way first–the details of the contract will influence how we feel about this deal. Frank Cusumano is reporting this is a two-year deal with a vesting option for a third year, which is something Allen Medlock and I felt very reasonable when we were discussing the deal this evening via private message. (Sorry, no Meet Me at Musial possible this weekend to break down this news.) That said, even if the Cardinals way over pay for him, they have a ton of payroll room and, save a strange reversal in Bryce Harper‘s market, they aren’t really going to spend it. In other words, it’s their money and it’s not going to keep them from doing anything else. As for length, I like the two-year deal with a vesting option (depending on the vesting, but you have to figure it won’t necessarily be a slam dunk). So it’s really hard to see how this deal could be bad just on the face of it.
Of course, that’s assumes that Miller is able to produce at a level that he is accustomed to. There’s no doubt that some of Miller’s numbers last year were not at all what you associate with the left-hander. A 4.24 ERA (and 3.51 FIP), a 1.382 WHIP, and a significant uptick in his walk rate (which has gone up the last two years) isn’t really exciting, even when you factor in the injuries that he has had. What I do like is the fact that even in his hindered state, he still struck out 45 batters in 34 innings. What the bullpen has been lacking is that sort of strikeout punch and Miller still seems to be bringing it. He also limited lefties to a .556 OPS last year, which is another huge hole in the Cardinal bullpen. All that and he was in a compromised state. If he’s healthy, even as he is getting older (he’ll be 34 early next season, which is at least a yellow flag), it would seem reasonable to believe that he could come back to something close to what he has been before, even if it’s not the utter dominance that you would expect.
Also, if you want another piece of optimism, the last outing Miller had last season was a rough one, allowing four runs in two-thirds of an inning. However, the span from his return from the DL at the beginning of August until that moment, Miller’s line was .181/.263/.278 with 21 strikeouts and five walks in 19 innings. Those sort of results coming out of the Cardinal bullpen would be a welcome relief, wouldn’t it?
So how is he used? You have to figure the Cardinals are going to give him a chance for the ninth, at least. Jordan Hicks is a great option, but there’s a decent case that he still needs a little more refining before he’s ready to be your ninth inning option. There’s the possibility of swapping him and Hicks in the eighth and ninth depending on who is going to be coming up. If Anthony Rizzo will be up in a close game in the eighth, maybe Miller gets that inning and Hicks takes the ninth and vice versa if Rizzo would be showing up in the final frame. With Mike Shildt at the helm, we probably could see a little bit more creativity and flexibility in the reliever roles.
Of course, there’s still the specter of the last big lefty that the Cardinals chased that hangs over this move. Brett Cecil had a good history (though, obviously, not nearly as good as Miller has) and was coming off a year that was off because of injury. The Cardinals went above board to get Cecil, thinking they were getting ahead of the market. Instead, it’s been an albatross that has been very, very bad. Not that it can’t be salvaged–well, it’s going to be a net loss no matter what the next two years hold but some of the hole could be filled in–but it’s going to be really hard to imagine Cecil being an asset for this team.
Could Miller see the end of Cecil? Maybe. Obviously, as our friend Joe Schwarz points out, there’s a lot of good (or at least decent) options on the left side now. They could keep Cecil to make sure that Genesis Cabrera stays in the starting rotation in the minors–a place Kyle Reis at least believes he should be at–but if they removed Cecil and ate that contract they’d probably be fine from the left side. Chasen Shreve was extended a contract and they also have Tyler Webb as an option as well. So they could find the room on the 40-man roster for Miller by removing Cecil. I don’t expect it will because I still think they’d like to get something out of that deal. It’s also interesting that the front office was very supportive of Dexter Fowler with his mental issues, but Cecil talked about seeing a psychologist during the season and there’s never been that kind of support for him.
If Cecil is not our 40-man casualty, it’s a little harder to narrow down who it might be. Of course, the club could wind up making a deal and trading off someone like Jose Martinez or Jedd Gyorko, but without that, I would imagine it would be either Justin Williams, the outfielder that they got from Tampa Bay as part of the Tommy Pham deal, or Ryan Meisinger, who was claimed this offseason off of waivers from the Orioles. There are a lot of outfielders on the 40-man, so I’ll go with Williams but that’s just a guess.
Anyway, we’ll find out soon if 1) the Miller gets done and 2) what the contract terms of it are. Again, I don’t think the terms are going to change the fact that this looks like a good pickup for the Cardinals. Whether it will actually turn out like that will have to wait until the games begin.