Andrew Miller made his 14th appearance of the season in yesterday’s Cardinals victory, and in doing so, he triggered a $12MM vesting option for the 2021 season, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold points out.
Miller, 35, signed a two-year, $25MM deal with St. Louis prior to the 2019 campaign — a contract that came with a vesting option which would become guaranteed with 110 games pitched between 2019-20. Miller appeared in a hefty 73 games for the Cards last season, leaving him with an easily attainable 37-game threshold to guarantee himself that salary in 2020. That number was prorated to just 14 games in this year’s shortened schedule, so even though the veteran southpaw missed some time in August due to some shoulder fatigue, he’s had enough time to secure that salary for next year.
The Cards haven’t yet seen the dominant form displayed by Miller during his 2013-17 peak, when he notched a combined 1.82 ERA and 1.96 FIP with 14.5 K/9 against 2.6 BB/9. The lefty has seen his strikeout rate dip from those levels as his control has worsened, and Miller’s fastball velocity has dropped by more than four miles per hour since 2016.
To be fair, Miller still has a sharp 3.09 ERA through 11 2/3 innings this year, to say nothing of a 12-to-4 K/BB and a 60 percent ground-ball rate that would mark a career-best. However, his overall body of work with the Cards — 4.21 ERA, 4.79 FIP, 82-to-31 K/BB ratio, 11 hit batters through 66 1/3 innings — is likely a good bit shy of what the organization had hoped for upon signing him. If Miller can continue at his 2020 pace even with the diminished velocity, next year’s salary won’t seem outlandish. But given the league-wide revenue losses in 2020, the extra $12MM being tacked on for a reliever’s age-36 season also isn’t ideal.
The Cardinals, who had seen their payroll (pre-prorating) rise above $160MM for a second straight season, already have roughly $111MM on the books for the 2021 campaign with Miller’s deal locked in. That doesn’t include arbitration raises for Jack Flaherty, Jordan Hicks, Harrison Bader or John Gant, nor does it include the pre-arbitration players who’ll round out the club. The front office will also have some work to do to up and down the roster. Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright are free agents. The outfield has been among the least-productive offensive units in baseball. There’s a $1MM buyout on Kolten Wong’s $12.5MM option for the 2021 season.
It’s not clear just what type of financial latitude the front office will be given by ownership, but we’re only a few months removed from Cards chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. brazenly declaring that the baseball industry “isn’t very profitable” even with fans in attendance. At the very least, Miller’s option further muddies what was already shaping up to be a complicated winter for president of baseball ops John Mozeliak, GM Mike Girsch and the rest of the Cards’ front office.