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The Bullpen Shuffle: Brett Cecil to the Cardinals

Injuries and a thin pitching market forced the Cardinals to overpay for an average reliever.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Brett Cecil has signed a 4-year deal with the St. Louis Cardinals for $30.5 million and a no-trade clause. This adds some stability to a Cardinals pen that was decidedly “meh” and middle-of-the-pack at just about every stat in 2016. They ranked 20th in IP, 11th in k/9, 19th in FIP, and 10th in GB%. The bullpen was average, so it makes sense to sign another average pitcher.

Cecil went 1-7 in 2016. His 3.93 ERA, 3.64 FIP, and 0.4 fWAR on the year are not what you expect to net a player 4-years/$30 million. The market for pitching this off-season is very thin, but what made St. Louis, a club notoriously good at pitcher development, make grabby hands and overpay for a so-so reliever? Injuries, lack of depth, Kevin Siegrist’s innings count, and a partial bullpen overhaul. The team has significant bullpen gaps:

  • Their one trade acquisition from before the 2016 deadline, lefty Zack Duke, will undergo Tommy John surgery and be unavailable for the 2017 season. Not that he wowed St. Louis during his two months as a Cardinal, but a reliable arm is a bad thing to lose. (These were likely his only two months in St. Louis; he is a free agent at the end of 2017.)
  • Long-reliever and spot-starter, Tyler Lyons (LHP), went on the 60-day DL with knee problems in August and elected to have offseason surgery. He will be out 5 - 6 months and miss spring training.
  • The Cardinals lost their significant lefty depth when Tim Cooney was claimed off waivers by Cleveland and Dean Kiekheffer was claimed by the Mariners.
  • It is not just on the left side that St. Louis is a bit short in the bullpen. Former double-play machine Seth Maness struggled early in 2016 and underwent UCL surgery in August, which may delay his 2017 season.

Brett Cecil will join only one other available left-handed relief pitcher, Kevin Siegrist, in the Cardinals pen. That availability might be the #1 reason GM John Mozeliak went after a LHP so quickly. Over the past two seasons, Kevin Siegrist has shouldered the lion’s share of the work for the Cardinals’ bullpen, and by a substantial margin. In that timeframe, he threw 136.1 innings and appeared in 148 games. The next-closest workload belongs to Trevor Rosenthal, who threw 109.0 innings and appeared in 113 games. Rosenthal suffered a shoulder injury in July, so the club has perhaps learned some lessons and trying to lighten the load that will fall on Siegrist in 2017.

It might be that 2016 was simply a down year for Brett Cecil. He pitched almost 50 percent more innings in both 2014 and 2015, with a 2.34 FIP in both seasons. That increased workload is an indicator he may be able to eat some extensive innings. The Cardinals are shuffling everything around, planning to begin using Trevor Rosenthal across multiple innings. As Rosey shifts to a long-reliever and potential starter, Brett Cecil will become the new versatile late-innings option.

Let the bullpen round of musical chairs begin!

The Cardinals are hoping Cecil reverts back to form in 2017. The best thing about his 2014 and 2015 seasons, and the thing that makes him a great fit for the Cardinals’ staff, is his ground ball rate. It was 53.8% in 2014 and dropped slightly to 51.6% in 2015. The Cardinals had the highest GB% in baseball last season, 49.5%, and shifted their entire infield to accommodate that attribute. Last year, as part of Cecil’s wholsale transformation, his GB% plummeted to 42.0%. If 2014/2015 Brett Cecil appears in 2017, it will be as good of a match for the Cardinals’ defense as it will be for the bullpen, and the whopping price tag attached to Cecil might start to make sense.