MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Cecil deal exemplifies next stage of bullpen evolution

While closer contracts will draw headlines, middle relievers, setup men also will cash in

Cecil deal exemplifies next stage of bullpen evolution

Four years ago when Mike Adams signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Phillies, it made history, since he was one of the first -- maybe the first -- setup men to get a multiyear deal.

That signing reflected the continuing evolution of both salaries and bullpen construction. The Phils had made a different kind of history a year earlier, in 2011, by signing closer Jonathan Papelbon to a deal worth $50 million over five years.

Hot Stove Tracker

No free-agent closer had come close to getting that kind of money. By the time Andrew Miller got a four-year, $36 million deal with the Yankees in December 2014, nary an eyebrow was raised.

Almost every general manager in baseball understood that bullpens were going to require a greater percentage of payroll than ever before. The San Francisco Giants won three championships in five seasons, in part, because of a deep bullpen, and, in part, because no manager on the planet maneuvers one better than Bruce Bochy.

Britton on reliever usage

Bullpen depth was a huge reason the Kansas City Royals made back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014-15. When Indians manager Terry Francona gave the ball to Miller in the fifth inning of his team's first postseason game last month, it changed the game yet again.

No, Miller will not be used this way during the regular season. But every GM is looking to add as much quality depth as he can find and afford.

Papelbon's $50 million record is going to be blown to smithereens this offseason, as free-agent closers Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon come off the board.

But the guys in front of them are going to have some nice paydays as well, especially in an offseason in which the free-agent starting pitcher class is thin.

That's one of the larger lessons of what the Cardinals did on Saturday when they agreed to a four-year, $30.5 million deal with free-agent left-hander Brett Cecil.

Cardinals reportedly sign Cecil

Cards GM John Mozeliak moved aggressively to get Cecil, offering the 30-year-old not just four years but also a no-trade clause. With two of his three left-handers, Tyler Lyons and Zach Duke, injured, Mozeliak needed a quality lefty to pair with Kevin Siegrist to give manager Mike Matheny additional options to get the ball to closer Seung Hwan Oh.

This isn't Mozeliak's heaviest offseason lifting. That will come when he lands an outfielder, preferably a center fielder, to shore up his defense and his lineup.

Cards look at outfield options

But this is an important move that could end up being critical to help those 17 1/2 games the Redbirds finished behind the Cubs in the National League Central.

Cecil's 2016 numbers aren't spectacular -- a 3.93 ERA in 54 appearances. But he suffered a serious calf injury during Toronto's 2015 postseason run and then missed a month in '16 with a lat injury.

By the time Cecil was fully healthy, he was very good. In his final 36 appearances, including the postseason, he had a 1.46 ERA and held opponents to a .151 batting average. Cecil had seven walks and 34 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings. Opposing batters hit .151.

Cecil fans two in perfect frame

From the perspective of 30,000 feet, this is a nice step in the right direction. Mozeliak sees a rotation with Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez and Lance Lynn lined up at the front.

The Cardinals have three right-handers (Matt Bowman, Jonathan Broxton and perhaps Trevor Rosenthal) and now two left-handers (Siegrist and Cecil) to bridge those innings leading to Oh.

Mozeliak's goal was to give Matheny as many quality options as possible to finish games. Signing Cecil isn't a headline grabber, but it's one of those acquisitions that looks smart today, and may look even better during next summer's stretch run.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.