ST. LOUIS -- There's no erasing the first impression, which for Brett Cecil consisted of an uneven first season in St. Louis. But with three years remaining on his $30.5 million contract, there is still plenty of time to script the desired ending.
Expected to serve as the Cardinals' left-handed setup man a year ago, Cecil instead navigated through periods when leads became too tenuous under his watch and his curveball abandoned him. Those issues forced manager Mike Matheny to adjust where and when he deployed the veteran reliever.
Roles for the team's 2018 bullpen remain undefined as the Cardinals prepare for the start of Spring Training. A bounce-back year from Cecil, however, would go far in helping the club solidify its late-innings coverage plan.
Cecil believes there were a number of factors that complicated things from the start last season. For the first time in his career, he was pitching in a new division in a new league and under a multiyear deal. Compounding those pressures was the fact that Cecil has habitually had trouble finding his rhythm right out of Spring Training.
He's trying to combat those slow-start tendencies by beginning his throwing program a few weeks earlier this winter.
"Just amped it up a little more this year, trying to kick the soreness, get the kinks out and prepare to get the mechanics in perfect condition before the season," Cecil said. "We'll see how it goes."
Getting his curveball right again will be key, too. After going two seasons without a left-handed batter tallying an extra-base hit off the pitch, Cecil watched lefties hit .382 and slug .618 on his curve last season.
His whiff rate on the pitch has decreased each of the past two seasons -- from 54 percent in 2015 to 43 percent in '16 to 40 percent in '17 -- and that contributed to Cecil finishing with his lowest season strikeout rate (8.8 per nine innings) since he moved to the bullpen full time in 2013.
Cecil's usage of the curveball dropped considerably, as well. In his final season with the Blue Jays, 45.4 percent of the pitches Cecil threw were curves. Last year that percentage was 28. The dip in usage mirrored the waning confidence Cecil had with a pitch that has been so critical in his career.
There were also moments, though, where Cecil put everything together and flourished. Things settled from mid-May until the All-Star break, a span in which Cecil was scored upon in one of 22 appearances. And though the lefty couldn't maintain that success in the second half, it was a reminder why the Cardinals made such a significant investment in him last offseason.
Now, as he readies for Year 2, Cecil wants to do his part to ensure it pays off.
"I think that's kind of the part that bothered me the most is, you know, you sign this big contract and you come over and you have an OK year," Cecil said. "That's not what you're expecting. That's not what people are expecting. I feel like I've almost given the people the wrong impression of myself, and hopefully I can change it and show them the me for the next three years."