This past offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals signed relief pitcher Brett Cecil to a four-year contract worth $30.5 million. This deal was one of many in the deepest free agent class of bullpen arms in recent memory. Suddenly, relievers were getting contracts that a solid position player would get just a few years ago.
The headliners of this offseason were New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman (five years, $86 million), Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen (five years, $80 million), and Giants closer Mark Melancon (four years, $62 million). These numbers may seem ridiculous for players who will pitch maybe 70 innings a year, but the value of a lockdown relief pitcher has been amplified in recent years, so they get the big bucks.
The fourth-largest contract for a reliever was awarded to Cecil. The left-hander spent the first eight years of his career in Toronto before making the jump to St. Louis. In his tenure north of the border, Cecil pitched to a 4.20 ERA in 656 innings. From 2013-2016, he posted a 2.90 ERA and an 11.5 SO/9 rate. For the better part of four seasons, he was one of the more dominant lefties in baseball.
Even given those numbers, signing Cecil to such a long contract was still a big risk. Last year was a down year, as he posted a 3.93 ERA and spent time on the disabled list. Still, they figured he was worth the risk. There were many reasons to believe he could bounce back to his dominant self. Moving from the AL East to the NL Central is a dream for a pitcher. From the launchpad that is Rogers Centre to the vacuum that is Busch Stadium. There was good reason to believe Cecil could be as dominant as ever.
So far, the only bang for the Cardinals’ buck is the bang of bats hitting anything Cecil has thrown this year. In 14 innings, he has a 5.79 ERA and a 1.82 WHIP.
To say this contract was a risk is an understatement. As previously mentioned, Cecil had a down year last year due in part to a triceps strain in his throwing arm. Any type of arm injury has the potential to have longterm effects on a pitcher. Cecil has shown no signs of being hurt this year, but he has not been himself.
The Cardinals see Cecil as a mainstay in their bullpen, thus the long contract. He will turn 31 this July, and will be 34 when his contract runs out. The shelf life of a relief pitcher is typically not very long, and Cecil has been excellent for a few years. It is fair to think that he could fighting the inevitable battle with father time.
His best seasons were from the ages of 26-28, which is normal. Now he is on the wrong side of 30 with high expectations to carry. The best fans in baseball do not take kindly to players who do not live up to the hype.
This is not to say teams should never sign players over 30. The Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals have been quite satisfied with their post-30 pitchers Jon Lester and Max Scherzer. However, there should be a level of caution when signing someone like Cecil. Being on the wrong side of 30 and having recent injury history are both red flags, but the Cardinals did not see it that way.
There is plenty of time to turn things around, but the Cecil experiment in St. Louis is off to a very rocky start.