It may be a good thing that Anheuser-Busch no longer owns the St. Louis Cardinals. They’d have one helluva promotional migraine on their hands with Cardinal fans wearing T-shirts and holding up placards saying, “Now . . . it’s Miller Time.”
The Cardinals announced via Twitter Friday morning that relief bellwether Andrew Miller has signed for two seasons with a 2021 vesting option; The Atlantic‘s Ken Rosenthal says the deal guarantees the lefthander $25 million for the two years and $12 million if the option vests.
Anyone wondering what the Cardinals were thinking in signing the 33-year-old lefthander might care to note that, even with an injury-disrupted 2018, his worst season since 2013, Miller’s 0.4 2018 wins above a replacement level player by himself were practically the same as the entire Cardinal bullpen for the season. Of course they were thinking a little more deeply when looking at Miller’s season.
From his return from the DL at August’s beginning until his final assignment of the season on 29 September, Miller pitched as close as possible to the wipeout pen man who helped the Indians get to Game Seven of the 2016 World Series before he ran out of fuel in that game. From 3 August through 28 September, Miller struck out 22 batters and walked only six while surrendering only fifteen hits and five earned runs in 16 innings for a more than solid 2.81 earned run average over the span, even if he had occasional control issues shaking off the rust and plunked two batters.
One bad inning on 29 September—a three-run homer and an RBI single—soiled his return from an early season hamstring strain and the knee inflammation that cost him two months. Clearly the Cardinals bypassed that final disaster, looked at his 3 August-28 September round, and decided that a healthy Miller meant a bullpen improved exponentially with a lefthander who can and has gone multiple innings in his turns and still owns a plus fastball and (when healthy) a slider that drives hitters into at-bat graves.
Just as clearly, the Cardinals offered Miller something other suitors couldn’t or wouldn’t, and Miller was romanced rather ardently since the World Series ended. The Mets and the Yankees had him on their dance cards and both teams asked for his most current medical reports. The Mets especially could have made room enough for Miller since they lack a solid lefthanded bullpen option at all and, if they’re that serious about contending in 2019, Miller healthy would have silenced a lot of the snickering about that stance.
Several reports indicated Miller had a phalanx of two-year offers on his plate but hoped for three. If the Cardinals were willing to give him the third year, even if it’s a vesting option, it means they have Miller through his age-36 season. If he lives up to his restored health and doesn’t let his coffin-nailing slider betray him, the Cardinals make an investment that helps send them back to the postseason post haste.
Miller gives several options for a Cardinal bullpen whose top five members posted a collective 4.50 ERA despite striking out eight or better per nine innings, perhaps because they were also walking a collective 4.16 per nine. Now look closer: the rate would have been far lower without Brett Cecil’s 6.9 walks per nine. Even closer Bud Norris undermined his own 10.9 K/9 rate with a 3.3 BB/9 rate, while converting 28 of 33 save chances.
Miller with an injury-disrupted 2016 still had a slightly better K/9 rate than the collective and individual Cardinal pen. He had a gruesome 4.2 seasonal BB/9 rate but most of that was thanks to his pre-August struggling through and with the injuries. His medicals must have looked even better to the Cardinals than they did to the Mets, the Yankees, and other teams on his trail. The Yankees may have needed to bring Miller back less, but the Mets—whose pen still needs remaking despite bagging Edwin Diaz to close—may have some splainin’ to do about not bringing Miller aboard at all.
The Cardinal pen clearly needed a shot in the arm, if not in the head. A healthy Miller gives them just that and then some, since his calling card once his gears fell into place has been middle, later, or both kinds of relief and not just single innings, either, though you have to be mindful of overworking him approaching age 33. Miller can even close when need be. (He did have such a season for the 2015 Yankees, saving 36.)
It’s going to seem strange, indeed, to see Busch Stadium with its several Budweiser signs including atop the major scoreboard serving Miller on the mound. They used to call Miller the champagne of bottled beer. They hope Miller on the mound means three rounds of champagne in the clubhouse in October.