If this is the last chance for St. Louis Cardinals lefty reliever Brett Cecil, he certainly appears to be giving it his best shot.
The southpaw showed up to spring training camp looking particularly pumped in the Hans and Franz sense. I don’t know if that’s going to help his mechanics. But to get in that sort of shape, there is definitely a high level of determination and focus involved. So, at least we know that he’s not sitting on the sofa, content to cash the fat checks that come courtesy of the four-year contract he signed three winters ago.
I was a bit perplexed when the Redbirds inked Cecil because he wasn’t really a high-profile pitcher. He slogged through a lousy 2016 in Toronto in which he posted a 1-7 record with a 3.93 earned run average. I know a lot of folks don’t think those are important numbers anymore. But when you’re a bullpen pitcher and you have an ERA anywhere close to 4.50, it’s hard for that to mean anything else other than that you fail at your job nearly half the time, giving up an earned run every other inning when you usually only pitch one inning at a time.
Cecil logged more of the same with St. Louis in 2017 and 2018. But he hasn’t always been a sub par hurler. His last year in Toronto, he suddenly allowed 25 percent more base runners than was his custom at that point and just couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. But from 2013-15, he had a 2.67 ERA, shutting out the opposition about three-quarters of the time and had more strikeouts than hits allowed.
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While a lot of hope has been placed on the back of outfielder Dexter Fowler to rebound from a .180-hitting season plagued by injuries, I’d say that a rejuvenated Cecil might be more valuable to the Birds if the team could only have one of the two. After all, Jose Martinez is capable of hitting .100 points better than Fowler, plus I would like to see Tyler O’Neill get a shot at showing what he can do in right field. Even though I still believe Bryce Harper could be transformational for this team, there are other options in right that could at least be passable. The Cardinals added lefty Andrew Miller over the winter. While he’s a lefty, he isn’t really a specialist. He’s a guy who can face lefties and righties, so using him as the guy who comes in to face one lefty swinger in a key spot would seem to be a waste of his talents.
Miller needs to be the guy who comes in after the starter departs, bridging the gap to the late innings, sort of a long-term set-up man. And he’s free to do that if Cecil can handle spot duty consistently, coming in to get the lefty slugger who threatens to break open the game. It’s true that Chasen Shreve and Austin Gomber are also lefties who have a shot to make the major league club. But I don’t see Shreve having Cecil’s ceiling and I think Gomber is more valuable as a starter, likely being the first man to get a shot if there is an injury in the rotation or if Adam Wainwright can’t make things work out.
After a season in which their bullpen was the team’s Achilles heel, the Cardinals need consistency from their veterans to take some of the heat off younger players who showed well their rookie year, but who will have to show they can continue to make adjustments to get hitters out as the opposition gets a book on them. St. Louis doesn’t need eight or nine relievers. It needs seven relievers who are effective in doing their job. When they have to carry guys or find safe situations for them to come into the game, it puts more stress on the other guys and that’s when things start to falter.
Baseball Reference doesn’t predict good things for Cecil. It pegs him with a disappointed ERA of exactly 4.50 with more than 1.4 base runners allowed per inning. But hopefully that doesn’t take into account the fact that he turned over a new physical leaf. If he can suddenly get his act together and become the pitcher he was five years ago, it could be a huge difference maker for the home team in 2019.