On Thursday night, the St. Louis Cardinals signed Andrew Miller to a still yet-to-be-announced contract (though KSDK’s Frank Cusumano has reported that it is a two-year deal with a third-year vesting option). Like Brett Cecil, whom the Cardinals signed to a four-year, $30.5 million contract in the 2016-17 off-season, Andrew Miller is a lefty relief pitcher who was once a pretty forgettable starter. Unlike Brett Cecil, Andrew Miller has at times been an extremely good relief pitcher. Like, “one of the best in baseball” good.
It has become a popular sentiment among smart baseball fans that signing relievers for anything more than low-cost one-year lottery ticket-type deals is bad business, and this is a particularly easy stance to articulate to Cardinals fans. In recent years, the Cardinals have swung and missed badly at several relatively high-priced free agents. In addition to the aforementioned Brett Cecil, worth just $3.6 million so far per FanGraphs halfway through his contract (and what would be expected to be the stronger half, at that), the Cardinals signed Greg Holland to a one-year, $14 million contract last season which turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, and they signed Luke Gregerson, ineffective and frequently hurt during the first year of a two-year contract.
While relievers probably aren’t the best use of free agent dollars, however, it’s a bit hyperbolic to declare that free agent relievers are inherently bad. Among the recent relievers who have been worth their cost as free agents include Andrew Miller himself. Miller signed a four-year, $36 million contract before the 2015 season with the New York Yankees, and by FanGraphs’s value estimates, he was worth $62.1 million over the life of the term. Miller had nearly been worth the contract by the point in July 2016 when the Yankees flipped Miller to the Cleveland Indians for four prospects, including Clint Frazier, at the time a top 25 prospect in baseball, and Justus Sheffield, who this off-season became the centerpiece of the package sent to the Seattle Mariners for James Paxton. The Yankees came away from their Andrew Miller signing sitting pretty.
The Cleveland Indians also seemed pretty content with the trade–their heavy usage of Miller during the 2016 postseason became the stuff of legend, as he picked up the ALCS MVP award thanks to 7 2/3 innings in which he allowed just three hits, zero runs, zero walks, and 14 strikeouts. He wasn’t just a typical one-inning closer (thanks to incumbent Cody Allen, he wasn’t technically any kind of closer)–he forced teams to reexamine the way they perceived relief pitching altogether.
Pushing rental relievers to the max with blatant disregard for their well-being is a time-honored tradition which was also deployed during the 2016 postseason by the Chicago Cubs with Aroldis Chapman (though, given who Aroldis Chapman is, this is fine by me), but Cleveland wasn’t just acquiring two-plus months of Andrew Miller–they had another two years of him in the fold. And in 2017, he was nearly as good as he was in 2016, with sub-2 ERA and FIP marks in 62 2/3 innings. During a four-year stretch from 2014 through 2017, Andrew Miller was the 43rd most valuable pitcher in baseball by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, despite most pitchers ahead of him on the list dwarfing him by total innings pitched (Kenley Jansen had 6 1/3 fewer; the only other primarily relief pitcher, Dellin Betances, had more).
This version of Andrew Miller, although firmly on the wrong side of thirty, is about as strong of a candidate as there is for a big reliever payday, but his 2018 campaign was far less inspiring. It wasn’t terrible, per se, but a 33 year-old reliever who battled injuries, saw his walk rate increased by over one walk per nine innings, and had the worst ERA (4.24) and FIP (3.51) of his relief pitching career while seeing noticeable velocity drops is hardly inspiring.
Despite Andrew Miller clearly being a shell of his former self, he would have been a welcome addition to the Cardinals’ 2018 bullpen. Despite being nearly a playoff team, the Cardinals ranked 19th by bullpen ERA and 18th by bullpen FIP–it was the truest area of weakness on the roster. But while last year’s bullpen catastrophe is hardly a good sign, this isn’t a traditional weak spot for the Cardinals. That fans often tear into the bullpen is hardly confined to St. Louis, where 2018 was the first season where the bullpen ranked below the league median by fWAR since 2012. And with the emergence of Jordan Hicks, the impending return of Alex Reyes, and the only major exodus being the 2018 back stretch’s worst reliever (Bud Norris), the Cardinals may not have needed to make this signing if Andrew Miller is just going to be what he was in 2018 all over again.
But if the Cardinals weren’t going to sign Bryce Harper or Dallas Keuchel, what else were the Cardinals going to do? Speaking as a person who does not have an ownership stake in the Cardinals, I would rather the Cardinals spend money on relief pitchers than nothing. If I were ever so naive as to believe that if the Cardinals weren’t spending on a player they’d lower ticket prices, I’m long past that point. And if the Cardinals are going to sign a reliever, I’d prefer to go with a player who was once truly great than some consistently average reliever who could easily be replaced internally. Miller will likely be much cheaper than Craig Kimbrel and he has been better for longer than Zach Britton, who also may be more costly. So while I’d prefer the Cardinals had taken a shot at splashier players, they could have also done worse than Andrew Miller.