The MLB free-agent market is even more stagnant than it was a year ago. The Red Sox are reportedly sitting out the relief-pitching market until free agent Craig Kimbrel’s situation changes, though the team made an internal move on Friday, avoiding salary arbitration with right-hander Heath Hembree by signing him to a reported $1.3 million deal.
There was something for those eager to have the hot stove come off a meek simmer, though. One former stud Red Sox reliever came off the board when Andrew Miller agreed to a two-year contract with the St. Louis Cardinals worth a reported $25 million. The deal has a third year that can vest based on appearances.
Andrew Miller’s deal with #STLCards, per source: Two years, $25M, plus vesting option, full no-trade clause. Option worth $12M, vests at 110 games combined in 2019-20. Incentives: $500K per year based on appearances. Breakdown: $11M in 2019, $11.5M in ‘20, $2.5M buyout on option.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 21, 2018
That deal is in spite of some significant durability concerns. One of baseball’s premier setup men and a key part of Terry Francona’s bullpen in Cleveland when the season began, Miller missed two weeks in April and May with a hamstring strain, then struggled to a 14.54 ERA in May before missing more than two months with inflammation in his right knee. He lasted just three weeks before a third disabled list trip, this time for swelling in his throwing shoulder.
Miller returned for September, but allowed an .800 OPS and 6.30 that month before walking three of the five men he faced during Cleveland’s short postseason run. Walks were what short-circuited the lefty early in his career. When he finally got them under control, most notably with the Red Sox in 2014, he immediately became one of the elite relievers in the game. The team traded him at the deadline to Baltimore for Eduardo Rodriguez, then a Double A prospect, and Miller spun a short stint with the Orioles — including a lights-out playoff run — into four years and $36 million from the Yankees in free agency.
That deal ended last season, with Miller — dealt for four prospects, including two first-rounders, to Cleveland at the 2016 deadline — feeling increasingly removed from the pitcher who was the American League Championship Series MVP in 2016 as the Indians took the Cubs to a World Series Game 7. His fastball velocity has dropped roughly a full mile-per-hour in back-to-back years, his walk rate last season was his highest since 2013, and his strikeout rate fell to its lowest point since 2012, his first full season as a reliever with the Sox.
At the beginning of September, Will Leitch remarked for MLB.com that “even after a somewhat down year, the way baseball is played now, someone’s going to pay through the nose for Miller.” Little did he know it was his Cardinals, who’d yet to sign a free agent this winter but added MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt from Arizona via trade.
According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Cardinals were also among the teams to talk to former Baltimore lefty Zach Britton, another name linked to the Red Sox as they potentially seek to supplement their relief corps and deal with the potential loss of free-agent Kimbrel. In his latest for FanCred, Jon Heyman wrote that longtime Yankees righty David Robertson is very much on Boston’s radar, but that “it is believed they would prefer to keep any deal to two years,” and Robertson — who’ll turn 34 in April — is looking for a third.
As for Hembree, the 29-year-old was second only to Joe Kelly with 67 appearances in the regular season, posting a 4.20 ERA in 60 innings, a career best .233 batting average against and holding lefties to a .186 average with one home run. Hembree didn’t allow a hit in four postseason appearances, though the first three of those were lopsided affairs when he entered. (He threw a scoreless 11th in the 18-inning third game of the World Series.)
His deal leaves 10 arbitration-eligible Red Sox unsigned: Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Brock Holt, Sandy Leon, and Blake Swihart, plus pitchers Matt Barnes, Eduardo Rodriguez, Brandon Workman, and Steven Wright.