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Cardinals place big bet on Brett Cecil to extend their pen

ST. LOUIS -- A couple weeks ago, when I asked St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak why he wouldn’t wade into the bidding for one of the elite free-agent closers and try to build a dam in front of the seventh inning, similar to what the New York Yankees had until July, he said the market would likely outrun his interest level.

Even in early November, word was out that pitchers such as Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen could command deals north of $12 million per season over five or six years.

“I don’t necessarily see where that’s going to benefit us,” Mozeliak said. “Not that we’re going to ignore the relief market, but my guess is that the elite talent ends up going somewhere else.”

As such, Mozeliak and the Cardinals did what they often do in hot-stove season: They found their guy in the second tier and struck early. They helped propel what figures to be a robust relief market Saturday by agreeing to a four-year, $30.5 million deal with lefty Brett Cecil.

If things go well, Cecil could be the Cardinals’ answer to Andrew Miller. Some combination of Trevor Rosenthal, Seung-Hwan Oh and Kevin Siegrist will give the team the equivalents of Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances. Or Miller, Dan Otero and Cody Allen. Or Jansen, Joe Blanton and Pedro Baez. All of this year's playoff teams seemed to have an elite trio of relievers.

The point is that good relief is expensive because it’s popular, and it's popular because it works in October. The Cardinals helped launch the deep bullpen craze in 2011, and since then, it has become all the rage. The San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals showed how far a bullpen can take you. This past October drove the point home with a sledgehammer, as managers began using their most lethal relievers in more sensible spots and earlier in games, regardless of the inning.

Since converting to relief in 2012, Cecil, 30, has nearly doubled his strikeout rate, from 16.6 percent to 32.2. He has a wicked curveball that makes him treacherous for left-handed batters, but he’s far from a situational lefty.

From 2013 to 2016, he held lefties to a .588 OPS, and he held all batters combined to a .631 OPS. For reference, no Cardinals batter hit that feebly last season.

Even if the deal is overpayment by the Cardinals, it is a reasonable risk because it patches over one of their deepest vulnerabilities. Siegrist is more effective against right-handed batters (.594 career OPS) than lefties (.691), which means that before the deal with Cecil, the Cardinals effectively had no lefty relievers. Zach Duke will miss the season after elbow surgery, and Tyler Lyons probably won’t be ready by April, as he is coming off knee surgery.

Who’s to say Cecil’s torn lat muscle, which might have contributed to his highest ERA since 2012, didn’t depress his market to the Cardinals’ benefit? He also dealt with more than his share of bad luck, judging from a .344 BABIP and 20 percent home-run rate last season.

The Cecil deal doesn’t figure to be the Cardinals’ only major move this winter, but it might be their biggest foray into free agency. They’re looking for an outfielder, preferably a center fielder, but the trade route might be more likely than the free-agent path because of the lack of options readily available.

Cardinals fans should see it as a sign that Mozeliak and the front office like the team’s chances because although Cecil figures to be a good pickup for April through September, he could play a bigger role in October. That’s the idea, anyway.