The Cardinals missed the playoffs for the third straight season in 2018, and their bullpen was a major reason why. The unit ranked among the NL’s worst by multiple measures, despite the team’s substantial investment in the ever-volatile reliever free agent market. With little choice but to dive back in, the team has made an even more substantial investment, signing 33-year-old lefty Andrew Miller to a two-year, $25 million deal.
The full details, via The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal:
Andrew Miller’s deal with #STLCards, per source: Two years, $25M, plus vesting option, full no-trade clause. Option worth $12M, vests at 110 games combined in 2019-20. Incentives: $500K per year based on appearances. Breakdown: $11M in 2019, $11.5M in ‘20, $2.5M buyout on option.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 21, 2018
Both the $12.5 million average annual value and $25 million total are slightly above the two-year, $22 million estimates from Kiley McDaniel and our Top 50 Free Agents crowdsourcing project. From among the handful of reliever deals signed thus far this winter, Miller’s AAV surpasses Jeurys Familia‘s $10 million AAV deal with the Mets. That one is for three years, so it remains the largest, with Miller tied for second in total value with Joe Kelly’s $25 million, three-year deal with the Dodgers. If Miller falls short of 110 appearances — a level he reached in any pair of consecutive seasons from 2013-2017 — across 2019-2020, then his 2021 vesting option becomes a club option with the $2.5 million buyout. According to Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan, Miller had “a number of two-year offers in hand,” but the Cardinals evidently provided enough bells and whistles — not to mention the chance to win — for their offer to stand out.
And brother, they could use the help. In 2018, the Cardinals’ bullpen ranked 11th in the NL in FIP (4.27), 12th in ERA (4.38) and WAR (0.5), 13th in both walk rate (10.9%) and strikeout rate (20.8%), and 14th in K-BB% (9.9%). Within a discordant clubhouse, they also led the league in unseemly rookie hazing, with closer Bud Norris “mercilessly riding” Jordan Hicks as part of “the dying tradition of teaching younger players in the harshest possible ways,” according to The Athletic’s Mark Saxon.
Norris (currently a free agent) saved 28 games for the Cardinals in 2018, which wasn’t really the plan going into the season. Signed to a one-year, $3 million deal, he was merely supposed to keep the spot warm for Greg Holland, whom the team signed to a one-year, $14 million deal on March 31. Holland, a victim of last winter’s free agent freeze out, walked four out of the five batters he faced in his April 9 debut, blew his first save chance on April 27, and was lit up for a 7.92 ERA and 4.56 FIP in 25 innings before being released on August 1. Compounding the Cardinals’ woes, Luke Gregerson, whom the team signed to a two-year, $17 million deal last December, was limited to 17 appearances totaling 12.2 innings with a 7.11 ERA and 4.74 FIP due to a left hamstring strain, surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, and a shoulder impingement. Lefty Brett Cecil, whom the Cardinals signed to a four-year, $30 million deal in November 2016, was limited to 32.2 innings by a left shoulder strain and right foot inflammation, and was torched for a 6.89 ERA and 6.28 FIP.
All told, Norris, Holland, Gregerson, and Cecil combined for -0.5 WAR while making a total of $29.75 million. Had they pitched up to their resumés, the quartet could easily have lifted the Cardinals from an 88-win also-ran into a 91-win team that would have played a tiebreaker against the Rockies for the second Wild Card spot (viva #TeamEntropy!). Even with Gregerson struggling in 2017 (-0.1 WAR), the quartet had been worth 2.8 WAR.
Of course, watching money thrown at relievers go up in smoke isn’t a problem limited to the Cardinals. Amid the struggles of Holland and Gregerson, Craig Edwards checked in on the performances from the pricier high end of the 2017-2018 winter free agent reliever market on June 28 and found that the 15 relievers who were guaranteed at least $10 million had averaged 25 innings and 0.1 WAR to that point. By contrast, the 15 relievers who were guaranteed between $1 million and $10 million (a group that included Norris) had combined to average 26 innings and 0.4 WAR to that point.
While it would obviously be to the Cardinals’ advantage if they could have developed the next Andrew Miller from within the organization, the weight of expectations forced them to shop from the top shelf. And even with the money they’re spending, they have to hope for a rebound, because like the Cardinals, Miller, who turns 34 on May 21, is coming off a rough year. In his second full season with the Indians, he made three separate trips to the disabled list and was limited to his lowest innings total since 2013 (34), and his worst ERA (4.24) and FIP (3.51) since becoming a full-time reliever in 2012. Miller missed 15 days with a left hamstring strain in late April and May, 69 days with inflammation in his right knee from late May until early August, and 12 days with shoulder impingement from late August to mid-September. He was so out of whack during the Division Series against the Astros that he walked three out of the five batters he faced while retiring just one.
That’s not great, particularly for a pitcher who hasn’t avoided a trip to the DL in any season since 2014, but Miller did get a clean bill of health in early November from Dr. David Altcheck, the Mets’ team physician. Miller’s agent, Mark Rodgers, told the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, “Altcheck saw absolutely nothing that would keep him from being the old Andrew Miller,” and said that the 6-foot-7 lefty’s problems were attributable to a cascade of injuries related to patellar tendinitis in his right knee (a problem that sidelined him for a total of 39 days in two late-2017 DL trips), but that the pitcher believes he’s found a regimen to alleviate the pain. The Cardinals medical staff is on board.
If the Cardinals are getting “the old Andrew Miller” in the sense of the vintage, restored model — and yes, it’s fair to be skeptical whether that’s the case — then that’s something special. Among all relievers since the start of 2013, Miller ranks second in FIP (2.12), third in K-BB% (31.9%), and fifth in ERA (2.07), strikeout rate (39.7%), and WAR (10.3). Beyond just those eye-opening numbers, he’s been at the vanguard of a 21st-century return to the fireman model of reliever usage, drawing high marks throughout the industry for his selfless approach. Thanks to the security afforded to him by the four-year, $36 million deal he signed with the Yankees in December 2014, he willingly shifted out of full-time closer duty once Aroldis Chapman joined New York’s bullpen following a late 2015 trade and early 2016 domestic violence suspension. Both relievers were traded in late July of that season, with Miller heading to Cleveland in exchange for four prospects (Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, J.P. Feyereisen and Ben Heller) and becoming a late-inning weapon for manager Terry Francona. “We’re at a point in time where you don’t have to be recognized as a closer to be an important part of the team,” Miller said in August 2016. “The goal here is to win games.”
On the heels of that trade, Miller put together one of the greatest postseasons worth of relief work ever seen, delivering a 1.40 ERA with 30 strikeouts and just five walks in a record-setting 19.1 innings spread over 10 appearances, just one of which came as a closer. Called into games as early as the fifth inning, his first 16 innings of that run — including 7.2 while earning ALCS MVP honors against the Blue Jays — were scoreless. Alas, he ran out of gas by the end of the World Series against the Cubs, yielding three runs over his final two appearances, including two in Game 7. He pitched well in the 2017 Division Series against the Yankees (five innings, eight strikeouts, and 5-for-5 in stranding inherited runners), though he took the loss for his lone run allowed, in Game 3. For his career, he owns a 1.09 ERA with 48 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 33 postseason innings.
The Cardinals, whose six lefty relievers combined for an MLB-worst 5.38 FIP, reportedly considered free agent Zach Britton as well as trades for the Indians’ Brad Hand and the Giants’ Will Smith as left-handed options before signing Miller. With Norris gone, there’s no incumbent closer, though the hard-throwing Hicks, a righty, is an alternative to Miller, who of course is hardly concerned with the late-inning pecking order. As he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Ben Fredrickson, “I want to win. It’s not always the ninth-inning guy who saves the day.”
Risk and all, how can you not love that?
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.