The Cardinals made a move! It’s not, however, one many here expected. Since the Cardinals were eliminated from the playoffs on the final day of the season, our writers have been busy analyzing all the different possible moves the Cardinals could make this winter. None of us specifically considered Brett Cecil. However, looking back it seems like a glaring omission. With Tyler Lyons unlikely to be ready to go by the start of the year, and trade deadline acquisition Zack Duke succumbing to Tommy John Surgery, there was an obvious need for a lefty reliever.
Of course, the best lefty reliever available will eventually sign the biggest contract ever handed out to a reliever. Aroldis Chapman was never likely to be Cardinal. Cecil however, was the second-best lefty reliever on the market. When including right-handers as well, relievers represent one of the only positions that have a decent selection of high-end talent this winter. In addition to Chapman, there is also Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon.
When looking at acquisition targets, I’ve typically used a player’s projection and a price of WAR to estimate a player’s value, and get an idea of what a reasonable cost for the player should be. The problem with that here though, is that relievers don’t play by the same rules. Since they only throw around 60 innings a year, they can’t accrue WAR on the same scale as starting pitchers and position players.
However, that doesn’t stop the market from valuing them much higher than public WAR figures imply. Avoiding spending big resources on relievers - specifically those who pad their value with saves - is one of the oldest principles of sabermetrics, or advanced statistics. Still, it seems like the public must be missing something when it comes to relievers, because even the smartest front offices tend to value relievers higher than the public analysis suggests.
So rather than judge this deal based on public WAR, we’ll compare Cecil’s deal to what he, and the higher-end relievers were and are expected to get. Every year, Fangraphs does a crowd-sourcing project where they ask their readers to guess how much each free agent will sign for. The average and median projections are usually lower than what the players sign for, but if you keep that caveat in mind they’re quite useful.
Fangraphs’ top transaction writer, Dave Cameron, also weighs in with what he thinks each player will sign for. The writing team at MLBTradeRumors.com, a leading MLB transactions site, publish their own list as well. Using these three sources, lets see how Cecil stacks up compared to the big three relievers left on the market:
The Fangraphs crowd and the crew at MLBTR were both much lower on Cecil than the Cardinals. No one predicted he’d get four years. Dave Cameron’s prediction was right on the money, in terms of, umm, money.
Overall, I have to agree with Dave’s interpretation of the market, and not just because he was closest on Cecil. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say even he might even be underestimating it a bit. Back at the trade deadline, I measured the value going to the sellers and buyers of each major trade, coming to the conclusion that it was an extreme seller’s market. Chapman of course, was traded to the Cubs in exchange for Top Prospect Gleybar Torres and a few minor assets. Overall, the Cubs gave up about $60M Net Present Value in resources for three months of Chapman. Oh, and they had to pay Chapman a few million too, as salary.
Sure, the trade deadline inflates prices, and one trade should never be used to judge an entire market. Still, is it that crazy to think Chapman may eventually sign a five or six (or seven??) year deal that earns him a total twice as much as what it just cost to acquire him for a few months?
The Indians, one of the smart front offices I referenced earlier, were lauded for getting fellow relief ace Andrew Miller on a relative bargain compared to what the Cubs traded for Chapman. They still forked over $80M+ in prospects for the right to pay Miller $21M over just two and a half seasons.
Again, you can contribute some of that to a lack of quality players on selling teams at the deadline. However, could a weak free agent market not have a similar, if not quite as large, affect? Teams have more money than ever to spend, and not all that many options to spend it on.
And the reliever craze is showing no signs of slowing down. Demand for relievers may be bigger than ever due to the fact that the Indians and Cubs promptly rode their newly acquired relief aces into the World Series. Chapman may not have performed all that well, but the Cubs still won, and Miller picked up the slack for both. Going back to the Royals’ back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015, more and more teams than ever are keen to the idea of a dominant bullpen shortening games in the postseason.
All this is to say, perhaps the Cardinals were getting out in front of the reliever market by signing him early. By getting their guy before Chapman, Jansen, and Melancon revealed the new cost of strong relievers, this deal could look like a bargain before we reach Spring Training.
And with all the big names on the market, perhaps a guy like Brett Cecil was overlooked. Let’s look at how Cecil performed last year, compared to the big three.
Cecil lags behind, but it was shortened by an injury, and his FIP was inflated due to a bad case of homeritis over a small sample. Still, on a rate basis he was a rather strong reliever. He also pitched in the AL East, which features several strong hitter’s parks. His home park was the sixth most homer friendly park, and he also gets three series a year in Yankee Stadium (third) and the Orioles’ Camden Yards (seventh). He will have to deal with the Reds’ Great American Bandbox (second) as well as the Brewers’ Miller Park (fifth) for about 19 games a year, but that’s more than outweighed by 81 games at Busch III (twenty-third).
Cecil had a down year in 2016, and it still wasn’t all that bad. Let’s look at the same players and stats, but over the last four years:
Cecil is not in the same tier as Chapman, Jansen, and Melancon, but he won’t be paid like them either. Melancon may have accrued twice as much WAR as Cecil in the last four years, but his 290 innings pitched in relief ranks second in all of baseball over this time frame, second to his former teammate Tony Watson. Going forward, that’s probably more of a negative than a positive for Melancon’s value.
On a rate basis, Cecil has been worth about 2/3rds the value of Melancon. However, Melancon could easily cost twice as much. Chapman and Jansen haven’t been three times as valuable as Cecil - in fact on a rate basis they’ve only been around twice as valuable - but they’re very likely to cost three times as much as him anyhow. Especially when you consider the fact that the team that signs Jansen will have part with a pick valued around $10M.
A lot of attention has gone towards getting the Cardinals a big upgrade. Cecil is that, at least relative to the other in-house bullpen options not named Seung Hwan Oh. He’s no Justin Turner or Kevin Kiermaier, but he’ll fill a hole the Cardinals had, and at a reasonable price. And there’s still plenty of time, money, and trade chips to make a big move or two. Signing one of the three big name closers was never going to happen. That’s fine, because the Cardinals got a better value by going off-brand.