A Recent History of the Cardinals Free Agent Reliever Signings

Lately, it seems like the Cardinals are paying a lot of money for free agent relievers who consistently underperform. I'm going to look at all the relievers the Cardinals have signed in Free Agency in the last 5 years and see if that is really the case or if the recent failures of Holland and Cecil are making me forget about past Free Agent relievers who lived up to the hype.

2018: Greg Holland, Bud Norris, Luke Gregersen

In 2017, Holland was having a phenomenal year with the Rockies until he gave up 14 runs in 9.1 innings in August and his ERA jumped from 1.64 to 3.97. The Cardinals gambled that August was a fluke and signed Holland to a 1 year 14 million dollar deal. Although he signed as a closer, Holland never recorded a save with the Cardinals. In his 32 relief appearances, he allowed 3 or more batters to reach base 11 times, and only retired 3 batters in a row 8 times. He had a 7.92 ERA during his stretch with the Cardinals and it felt like it should have been a lot worse.

Gregerson had two very good seasons with Houston in 2015 and 2016 with FIP's of 2.86 and 2.99. In 2017, he had the worst year of his career. Although his strikeout and walk numbers were solid, the rate that he allowed HR was twice as high as any year in his career. The Cardinals signed him to a two year deal and hoped that he would turn things around in 2018. Gregerson only pitched 12.2 innings due to a knee surgery and a reoccurring issue with this shoulder. He started 2019 on the injured list and doesn't look like he'll have much of an impact this year.

Norris was signed to a 1 year 3 million dollar deal. He emerged as the closer and had an impressive 2.85 ERA through August. Unfortunately, Norris imploded in September. Despite only pitching 4 innings that month, he recorded 3 losses and a blown save. His ERA for the season jumped to 3.59 and he finished the season with 0.0 WAR.

2017: Brett Cecil

The Cardinals were looking for a dominant left handed reliever and signed Cecil to a 4 year 30.5 million dollar deal. Cecil had a decent 2017 campaign and recorded a 3.88 ERA/3.26 FIP . In 2018 Cecil had multiple trips to the DL and pitched terribly even when he was healthy. He finished the year with a 6.28 FIP in 32.3 Innings. He is starting 2019 on the injured list and his future with the Cardinals does not look great.

2016: Jonathan Broxton

Broxton was an atypical free agent signing because he was acquired in a trade with the Brewers, and only became a Free Agent when the Cardinals declined to exercise his option the following year. The Cards signed Broxton to a two year contract for a total of 7.5 million dollars. Broxton had a mediocre 4.10 FIP in 2016, and was released in 2017 after recording a 4.88 FIP in only 15.2 Innings.

2015: Matt Belisle

The Cardinals signed the 35 year old Belisle to a 1 year deal for 3.5 million dollars. He had a 2.67 ERA and 3.64 FIP in 33.2 Innings. The next year he signed with the Nationals and had an impressive year, recording a 1.76 ERA/2.84 FIP in 46.0 Innings. In the next two years he would pitch for the Twins and Indians but his FIP would plummet to 4.07 in 2017 and 5.20 in 2018.

2014: Neshek

I almost didn't include Neshek because he was signed to a Minor League deal. However, since the Cardinals didn't sign any free agent relievers to a Major League Contract this year and Neshek went on to become an All Star, I decided it would be a mistake to exclude him. Neshek had a 1.87 ERA/2.37 FIP in 67.1 Innings with the Cards. After St. Louis he has continued to have a very successful career as a reliever with Houston, Philadelphia and Colorado.

After looking over the last 5 years of free agent reliever signings, it is easy to see why Cardinal fans are frustrated that the Front Office continues to spend so much money on the bullpen. The best signings have been a minor league deal (Neshek) and a reasonable 1 year deal (Belisle). The worst signings are players who had very good careers but were coming off a down year (Holland, Cecil, Gregerson). Not only were these pitchers the worst performers they also cost significantly more and had no minor league options. Once these relievers start struggling the Front Office was hesitant to cut them because it was embarrassing to admit that their big offseason signing was a failure. What is worse is that since they couldn't option these relievers to Memphis they usually stayed in the Major League roster and continued to lose games.

On paper, the Cardinals latest bullpen addition, Andrew Miller, has a lot in common with Holland/Cecil/Gregerson. He has had a long successful career, but is coming off a down year where he had multiple trips to the DL for problems with his shoulder, knee, and hamstring. Furthermore, his 2 year 25 million dollar contract easily makes him the most expensive piece of the Cardinals bullpen. While it is too early to know how Miller perform, I hope that in the future the Cardinals will spend more money on their rotation and lineup, and rely on younger cheaper relievers who still have options remaining.