Mike Leake Is Just What the Doctor Ordered for Cardinals' Ailing Rotation

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 22, 2015

San Francisco Giants pitcher Mike Leake works against the Oakland Athletics during the first inning of a baseball game Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

After a season in which their starting rotation led Major League Baseball with a 2.99 ERA, you'd think a starting pitcher would be the last thing the St. Louis Cardinals would need this winter.

But need one they did. And Tuesday, they found just the man for the job in Mike Leake.

News of Leake's agreement with the Cardinals was first reported by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, who later reported the deal could cost the Cardinals nearly $100 million in the long run:

Ken Rosenthal @Ken_Rosenthal

Source: Leake deal is five years, $80M with mutual option that could increase total value to $93M/$94M range.

And there's more! According to Rosenthal, Leake's deal also includes a full no-trade clause. The Cardinals are giving the 28-year-old right-hander everything he could have asked for and then some.

Sounds like a deal that contradicts the claim that Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak made to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when he said the club was out on "dynamic signings" this winter. And for a guy like Leake, it's arguably a bit much. He's been a roughly league-average pitcher, so odds are he's not going to elevate the Cardinals rotation to new heights.

But then, that's not really the point. Rather than elevating their rotation to new heights, the Cardinals' priority was to ensure it didn't sink to unknown depths.

Said rotation was indeed quite good in 2015, but it's been hit hard in recent months. This winter, it's lost John Lackey to free agency and Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery. Those losses make the Cardinals rotation reliant on Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia. That's a good foursome on paper, but Wainwright is old and the other three come with durability question marks.

With all this going on, the Cardinals rotation needed something solid. In Leake, they've found just that.

John Minchillo/Associated Press

You know that point about Leake being a roughly league-average pitcher? That stems from one statistic in particular. The 3.88 ERA he's compiled since entering the league in 2010 equates to a 101 ERA-plus, which is exactly one tick above the mark for average (100). 

But this isn't necessarily an insult. Some guys give the term "league average" a good name. Leake is one of those guys.

Leake is nothing if not consistent, as he's posted ERAs in the mid- to high-3.00s in four of five seasons and has averaged roughly 195 innings pitched over the last four seasons. Along the way, his strengths have stood out just as much as his faults.

Leake has one fault in particular, and it's that he's not overpowering. His average fastball is only about 90-91 mph, and that's contributed to consistently below-average strikeout rates and average or worse home run rates.

But deception and command can make up for a lot, and Leake has both of those things in spades.

Mike Leake's Career BB/9 and GB%

Brooks Baseball shows he has a varied pitch mix that doesn't include anything straight—he threw exactly four four-seam fastballs in 2015—but that hasn't stopped him from posting consistently below-average walk rates. Combined, these two skills form arguably his best talent: getting ground balls. With a career GB percent of 50.2, Leake gets plenty of those.

These talents make Leake something of a natural fit for the Cardinals rotation. It's coming off a year in which it finished in the bottom half of MLB in walks and third in ground balls. Clearly, neither Yadier Molina nor the Cardinals infield will need to adjust for Leake.

For that matter, Leake himself shouldn't need to do any adjusting.

Thanks to his five-plus seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, he's no stranger to either the NL West or Busch Stadium. And after failing to make the most of his opportunity to pitch at a big-time pitcher's park with the San Francisco Giants, he now has another chance to do so. Busch Stadium isn't AT&T Park, but it's definitely more friendly to pitchers than Great American Ball Park.

Even if Leake doesn't get better with regular action at a pitcher's park, the Cardinals will be happy if he at least stays on the mound. And that should happen.

Leake has been good for 30 starts and more than six innings per start over the last four seasons, and it's fair to expect more of the same. With just his age-28 season due up in 2016, Leake is a few years short of the usual expiration date for starting pitchers. And though he did miss a good chunk of action with an injury in 2015, it was a hamstring injury. Generally, his arm and shoulder have behaved. 

In a nutshell, Leake is a safe investment for the Cardinals. Matthew Leach of MLB.com summed it up well:

Matthew Leach @MatthewHLeach

They have risk-reward guys. They needed a high-floor guy. He's very much that. And, again, in this market, price isn't bad.

If there's one thing Leake's signing doesn't do, it's change the power structure in the NL Central.

The Chicago Cubs still look like the class of the division after adding Lackey, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist to a roster that won 97 games in 2015. The Cardinals may have been able to change that if they'd made good on their pursuit of David Price, but, well, they didn't.

The Cardinals were, however, still very much in the picture even before they signed Leake. They're even more in the picture after signing Leake. He's not Price, but he's just the kind of safety blanket that the Cardinals starting rotation needed. 

For a guy like that, at least $80 million and perhaps as much as $94 million doesn't sound like such a bad price to pay after all.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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