photo: Brett Cecil (Gregory Fisher/USA TODAY Sports)
On Wednesday, as part of their annual Rule 5 draft preparation roster moves, the St. Louis Cardinals announced that right-handed reliever Dominic Leone was designated for assignment. In other words, the 28-year old lost his 40-man roster spot. His next move will be decided in the next seven days – whether claimed off waivers by another organization, traded, outrighted to the minor leagues or released.
What did NOT occur instead, however, is the release of pitcher Brett Cecil – long a whipping boy for a segment of Cardinals fans unhappy about bad investments made in long-term contracts.
There can be no debate – the left-hander’s four-year, $30.5 million contract, signed in November 2016, has been a bust. Even so, there are legitimate reasons to keep Cecil around a while longer.
On social media, I witnessed some whose opinions I usually appreciate expressing anger at the team for cutting Leone instead of Cecil. It suggests to me that emotion rather than logic is speaking for them.
This week, the Cardinals protected the prospects they needed to exempt from the Rule 5 draft and they let go a low contributor unlikely to become a factor in the future. There should be no fan furor.
I will explain why I feel this way by reviewing each reliever’s situation in further detail.
Leone joined the Cardinals in January 2018 from Toronto with promise. It became promise unfulfilled.
In each of his years with St. Louis, Leone’s performance declined – to the point his bWAR in 2019 was a negative 0.3 – below replacement value. He spent part of the season back in Triple-A and was left off St. Louis’ post-season roster, passed by younger pitchers with more potential.
Leone did not spend a day on the injured list in 2019 and unlike fellow arbitration-eligible pitcher John Gant, there have been no suggestions that overwork contributed to his slide.
Looking ahead, due to his accrued MLB service time, Leone is eligible for arbitration in 2020. That means a healthy salary increase would be assured. One estimate has pegged his 2020 salary at $1.6 million (per MLB Trade Rumors).
Also, his allowable minor league options have been exhausted. This means that next season, Leone could not be simply sent down again to Memphis if his struggles continue. In that case, more money would have been wasted on an ineffective reliever – money that did not have to be spent.
Bottom line, there were many reasons to let Leone go and not any good ones to keep him.
After an ok first year with St. Louis (1.1 bWAR in 2017), Cecil struggled in 2018 (-0.1 bWAR) and did not pitch at all last season, which he spent on the 60-day injured list. He has made 113 relief appearances in a Cardinals uniform after 330 with Toronto.
While I want to be crystal clear that I do not have high expectations for Cecil in his fourth and likely final year with the team, keeping him at this point makes more sense than letting him go. He should be brought to camp, an evaluation made of his ability to contribute in 2020 and a decision made at the end of March.
At that point, he could be activated, released or returned to the injured list. Cecil could not be outrighted to the minor leagues or traded without him first waiving his no-trade protection.
In season, If Cecil was placed back on the 60-day IL, it would not keep another player off the 40-man roster. (A factor not understood is if the team purchased insurance against his contract to recoup some or all of the lost salary if he cannot pitch. If that is the case, it could explain why a release would not happen even in the spring.)
Either way, the Cardinals are stuck with Cecil’s $7 million salary in 2020. The 33-year old is recovering from surgery to address symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, so there is at least a chance his downturn was partially rooted in injury. In other words, the glass may not be entirely empty.
Now, if he is activated, pitches poorly and ends up costing the team wins in 2020, it would be another matter entirely. I get that many just assume this will happen, but I am not there yet. Yet.
If Cecil does not pull his weight in the regular season, even after a good spring camp, then my tune will quickly change – but not here in November.
But if Cecil was released now, any possible 2020 bounce back (no matter how remote you might think the chance is) would be in the uniform of another team, with the Cardinals still paying almost his entire salary. What a furor there would be if that occurred – the worst of both worlds!
Why double down on bad decisions, throwing even more money away at below-average relievers?
Nothing can be done about Cecil’s contract, but the Cardinals can and did avoid paying another $1.6 million to Leone next season. His replacement will likely be a minimum-salary pitcher possessing more upside, while saving the club at least $1 million that will hopefully be used elsewhere to improve the team.
What is ahead in 2020 for Cecil is unknown, but keeping him at this point over Leone was the better move, in my view.
Agree or disagree? Stop by The Cardinal Nation’s free forum to weigh in.
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