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BenFred: Miller's troubling 2018 would have looked pretty good in Cards' bullpen

BenFred: Miller's troubling 2018 would have looked pretty good in Cards' bullpen

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A baseball team synonymous with Budweiser ordered a Miller.

Naturally, St. Louis isn't quite sure how to feel.

The same Cardinals who have preached against paying for past performance, especially when it comes to veteran relievers, just hooked themselves to 33-year-old lefthanded reliever Andrew Miller for what could become three years and $36 million if the pitcher hits certain incentives and secures a vesting option for 2021.

Opinions vary when it comes to this call. Context is critical. When evaluating the addition, don't forget to factor in the thirst Miller might quench.

The Cardinals were in desperate need of significant help in a job notorious for its unpredictability. The volatile nature of top-shelf relief pitching did not change the fact the Cardinals had a crippling weakness. Their bullpen was weak on strikeouts and heavy on walks. Even more problematic was the entire left side. An above-average southpaw was hard to find.

So, the Cardinals did their research and made their call: Miller on a multi-year deal. No turning back now. And no guarantees, other than soaring expectations that Miller will become the bearded savior in a bullpen renaissance.

Miller, whose resumé is as tall as he is, might just meet those expectations. He embraced them during his first comments as a Cardinal. Who better to help spearhead a young, talented pitching staff than a name brand who defines unselfishness and presented dog-piling after a World Series as his primary goal.

"That's the holy grail," he said. "That's the box I want to check."

That line will sell. That said, a bold prediction of Miller's success with the Cardinals will not be found here. I've learned my lesson.

When you have cheered the signing of Greg Holland (my bad) and shrugged at the signing of Bud Norris (whoops), it's OK to admit you just don't know when it comes to relievers.

The teams don't even know.

They just try.

They study medical reports and gather intelligence and run projections until their computers spit sparks. They figure out whatever steered them toward moving on Miller instead of chasing younger lefty free-agent reliever Zach Britton. They take the knowledge they've acquired and make what they hope is an educated guess. Gulp, and go get him.

Sometimes, like with the inexpensive one-season signing of Norris, the team looks intelligent and ahead of the curve.

Sometimes, like with the expensive one-season signing of Holland, the team looks wrong but ultimately not married to its misfire.

Sometimes, like with a four-year, $30-plus million, no-trade-clause-including commitment to Brett Cecil, the team looks, well, not so wise.

Last season's landscape was dotted with relievers who looked like they were falling apart in the first year of their new multi-season contract. That list includes Addison Reed of the Twins, Brandon Morrow of the Cubs and Bryan Shaw of the Rockies. There are more.

It makes you wonder why any team would offer a reliever multiple years.

"In the end, markets are markets," Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said during winter meetings, as the Cardinals circled Miller.

"If you are going to play in it," Mozeliak said then, "you have to be prepared to pay in it."

The Cardinals are gambling on Miller. Let's not pretend they have much to lose.

Miller, who once reigned as the best reliever in baseball, does not have to be that version of himself for the Cardinals to benefit greatly from his addition. That says a lot about Miller. It says even more about why the Cardinals needed someone like Miller.

There is a good chance the Cardinals will not get Miller's career best. He might be forever dulled by his age, his recent dip in fastball velocity, his injury history that includes problems with a hamstring, shoulder and knee, oh my.

But here's the thing. If Miller does rebound, the Cardinals win big. And even if he only rebounds slightly, he can still make a big difference in this bullpen. That's how good he is. That's how bad the left side of the bullpen was.

At his best, Miller is a Swiss-Army-Knife strikeout-producer. At his worst, he's a solid left-handed option, an every-day tool whose value is overlooked. The Cardinals just dropped him into a bullpen that had safety scissors for southpaws.

Between 2012 and 2017, Miller was undoubtedly elite. During that span, he ranked fourth among relievers in ERA (2.01), third in opponent OPS (.498) and fourth in strikeouts (520). He rejected the notion of needing a defined role. He pitched when asked, no matter the inning's number, and no matter the number of innings. Others followed in his footsteps. Miller Lites.

But last season, Miller landed on the disabled list three times and was limited to 37 games and 34 innings. It was, easily, the worst season of his career since he became a full-time reliever. Combine the injuries with the age and an average fastball velocity that has dropped from 95.4 mph in 2016 to 93.8 in 2018, and there are fair reasons to ask: might Miller be mortal?

When it comes to aging relievers who tend to have the job security of poisonous snake handlers, the safe answer is almost always yes. But is it not possible that Miller, if fully healthy as his camp insists, has performances left in him that are more similar to that remarkable 2012-17 run?

The Cardinals are taking the chance because their outlook without Miller is more desperate than their investment in him.

The Cardinals had just two lefthanded relievers who made as many appearances last season as Miller's injury-shortened 37 games. Chasen Shreve, who was traded from the Yankees to St. Louis during the season, made 60 appearances. The embattled Cecil made 40.

Lefthanded hitters slashed .227/.306/.250 against Miller last season. Not good numbers, for him. But lefties hit .310/.379/.483 against Cecil. They averaged .275/.361/.550 against Shreve.

Let's look at a few other statistics comparing these three. Each pitcher's career averages as a reliever is in parentheses.

ERA

Shreve: 3.93 (3.66)

Miller: 4.24 (2.59)

Cecil: 6.89 (3.61)

OPPONENT ON-BASE PERCENTAGE

Miller: .338 (.270)

Shreve: .345 (.323)

Cecil: .408 (.311)

OPPONENT SLUGGING PERCENTAGE

Miller: .391 (.282)

Shreve: .488 (.436)

Cecil: .496 (.369)

STRIKEOUTS PER NINE INNINGS

Miller: 11.9 (13.4)

Shreve: 10.6 (10.4)

Cecil: 5.2 (10.1)

INHERITED RUNNERS SCORED PERCENTAGE

Miller: 17.6% (20)

Cecil: 26.9% (27.8)

Shreve 34.5% (26.8)

Get the picture?

Miller will aim to bounce back as a high-leverage monster, but when trying to decide how to view the Cardinals' bet that he will, don't forget that the worst season of Miller's impressive run as an elite reliever would have been viewed as a boost to his new bullpen.

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