The St. Louis Cardinals made a series of bad signings in the second half of the 2010s. Most of the team’s best signings came from before 2016, but all of the team’s worst signings came in 2016 or later. The team particularly struggled with signing relievers and it gave out two regrettably large contracts to players that supposed to fill key gaps.
Mike Leake, 2016-2017, 5 years - $80 million
The Cardinals signed Mike Leake prior to the 2016 season and he was certainly not their top option. The team needed a rotation upgrade after losing John Lackey to the Cubs and Lance Lynn to injury. Unsurprisingly, Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox had also outbid the Cardinals for David Price. St. Louis also didn’t want to surrender a draft pick to sign any pitchers with qualifying offers and Mike Leake fit that criteria.
Many people would say that the Cardinals overpaid for Mike Leake, and that is true, but the team did at least get decent production from the right-hander before moving on from him just two years into his five year contract. Leake was worth 2.5 fWAR in his first season and 1.7 fWAR in his second season, though he made five more starts after being traded. Overall, 4.2 fWAR in two seasons is not terrible production, especially since Leake was able to stay healthy and eat innings.
He simply did not produce enough to justify his contract, and the Cardinals essentially admitted that they made a mistake when they sent him to the Mariners for minor league depth (Rayder Ascanio) and ate most of his contract. Overall, the team paid Leake $27 million over his first two years and then sent another $15 million to Seattle.
The Cardinals spent about $10 million per unit of WAR. This is actually not a terrible overpay as the free agent market rate per unit of WAR is typically around $8 million. A.E. Schafer wrote a detailed article for VEB about the Mike Leake situation around a month after the trade in 2017. You can read it here.
Brett Cecil, 2017-2019, 4 years - $30.5 million
Brett Cecil had a bit of a down year in 2016 (3.64 FIP), his last pre-Cardinal year, as his FIP eclipsed the 3.00 mark for the first time since 2012. Given his track record of success, there was hope that Cecil could be a shutdown lefty and bolster the Cardinals ‘pen. Things did not go well, though, as Cecil only took the mound in two of the four seasons that his contract spanned. He actually wasn’t bad in his first year, posting a 1.1 fWAR and a 3.26 FIP. His 3.88 ERA was a bit high, but his xERA of 2.76 suggested that he was unlucky.
The wheels completely fell off in 2018, as he was worth an incredible -0.7 fWAR in 32 2⁄3 innings. He then missed all of the 2019 season, and he was released prior to the start the delayed 2020 season. In total, Cecil was worth just 0.4 fWAR over the life of his contract, which means that his cost per unit of WAR was an insane $76.25 million.
Dexter Fowler, 2017-2020, 5 years - $82.5 million
The Cardinals made another mistake in the 2016/2017 offseason by signing Dexter Fowler to a long term contract. Like Cecil, Fowler actually had a good first year wearing the Birds on the Bat, but the deal quickly turned sour.
Fowler was an above average hitter worth 2.6 fWAR in his debut Cardinal season. but the next year he was worth -1.1 fWAR. He bounced back a little bit in 2019, posting a 103 wRC+ and 1.6 fWAR. After turning 34 in 2020, Fowler played in just 31 games and was a slightly below average hitter and not a good fielder. In fact, he was never even an average fielder in the four years that he spent with the Cardinals and he never hit well enough to overcome that.
This contract didn’t look so bad in 2017 was Fowler was actually a decent player, but things quickly went off the rails. This signing was much worse than the Mike Leake signing and nothing demonstrates that more than the fact that the Cardinals were able to trade Leake before the end of his second year. The team had to wait until the final year of Fowler’s contract to trade him and they only received a player to be named later or cash despite eating all but $1.75 million of the final $16.5 million owed to Fowler.
In Fowler’s tenure with the Cardinals, he was worth just 3.1 fWAR while being paid $80.75 million by the Redbirds. He averaged less that 1 fWAR per season despite being compensated as the 6th highest paid right fielder in the league. His cost was just over $26 million per unit of WAR.
Greg Holland, 2018, 1 year - $14 million
Did Greg Holland really pitch 32 games for the Cardinals? Actually, the better question is how did Mike Matheny manage to rationalize putting him in so many games? Surprisingly, Holland posted a 0.0 fWAR with St. Louis because his 4.56 FIP was much better than his 7.92 ERA. Baseball Reference had him worth -1.4 WAR due to the site using runs allowed per nine innings as opposed to FIP when calculating WAR.
The main issue with Holland was an inability to throw strikes. He would have fit right in with the Cardinals pitching staff at the beginning of this year with his 16.7% walk rate. The right-hander had a pretty unbelieveable 2.24 WHIP and was finally released after the team lost all hope of him turning things around.
$14 million for exactly 0 WAR (or -1.4 if you prefer Baseball Reference’s version of WAR) is a complete waste of money, but this signing was not as bad as some of other ones previously listed. For as bad as Holland was, and for as bad as his contract was, he was only given a one year deal. This means that he was gone in the blink of an eye and the Cardinals were not tied to his contract after the 2018 season. The Leake, Cecil, and Fowler contracts all lingered and hurt the Cardinals for much longer.
Andrew Miller, 2019-2021, 3 years - $34.5 million
Andrew Miller is the third reliever and the fourth pitcher on this list. The Cardinals have clearly had some issues with signing high profile relievers. Pat Neshek, T.J. McFarland, and Luis Garcia, among others, provided the team with much more value at a fraction of the cost. The team is much better off sticking with low profile signings and prospects to fill out the bullpen.
Andrew Miller somehow pitched in 71 games in his first season with St. Louis. That year he had a 5.19 FIP and was worth -0.4 fWAR. The Cardinals could have gotten out of the contract in two years, but after Miller made his 14th appearance of the season in 2020, his vesting option added another season to his contract. To his credit, Miller was much better in 2020 (2.58 FIP), but that could have been due to the small 13 inning sample size. He wasn’t great in 2021 and his Cardinal career ended with -0.2 fWAR and a $34.5 million price tag.
Before signing with the Cardinals, Miller had been one of the best relievers in all of baseball, though he did take a step back in 2018. After signing with the Cardinals he was not the same pitcher as he was in his heyday. The Cardinals made another costly mistake with him, and unlike with Holland, it hurt them for multiple years.
Worst Free Agent Signing Since 2010 - Dexter Fowler
It is honestly difficult to determine which one of these signings was the worst. I can discard Mike Leake on account of him actually giving the Cardinals decent production and the fact that they were at least able to trade him early into his contract. I can also discount Greg Holland based on the fact that the damage potential of a one year contract is minimal. This leaves Fowler, Cecil, and Miller. Miller and Cecil are honestly pretty close, but Cecil only played two years and his contract felt like it was never going to end. Miller at least saw the field in every year of his contract. Cecil gets the edge here. Fowler’s contract was much larger and a year longer. He was the team’s starting right fielder for much of his time in St. Louis, but he didn’t exactly shower himself in glory. Rather, his contract hamstrung the Cardinals’ spending ability and didn’t provide the team with nearly enough production. Fowler was a more useful player than Cecil, but his contract was much larger. It is a close call, but Fowler’s contract was a bit worse than Cecil’s.
If I could, I would say that the Cardinals worst signing has been every big contract reliever since 2016. Between, Cecil, Holland, and Miller, the Cardinals spent nearly $80 million for 0.2 fWAR. That is a shocking amount of money thrown at under-performing relievers. For reference, T.J. McFarland was worth 0.3 fWAR and made $424,000 last season.
What do you think? Who is the worst signing since 2010? Was the Cecil contract worse than the Fowler contract or does someone else claim this dubious honor? Let me know in the comments.