After missing out on Jason Heyward, John Mozeliak indicated the team was likely out of the hunt for big-name outfielders and would instead pursue an upgrade to the rotation. Those pursuits appear to have been fruitful as the Cardinals signed starting pitcher Mike Leake to a five-year contract for $80 million that includes a no-trade clause and a mutual option for a sixth year. A match between the two teams has been rumored for some time, but Chris Cotillo was the first to report a deal was close.
Mike Leake is not exactly what the Cardinals, or their fans, had in mind for a major offseason signing entering the winter. Leake, who just turned 28 years old, pitched most of his career for the Cincinnati Reds before being traded to the San Francisco Giants at the trading deadline this past season. Leake has been durable, making at least 30 starts in each of the past four seasons. His production has been rather average, with a 4.21 FIP and 3.88 ERA for his career. That trade to the Giants proved rather fortuitous to Leake, as it prevented him from being attached with a qualifying offer. As a result, the Cardinals will not forfeit a draft pick for signing Leake.
Leake is very much in the mold of a Dave Duncan-type Cardinals pitcher. he has struck out just 16% of batters over the course of his career and given up walks to just 6% batters. His ground ball rate is just above 50% for his career. Leake could benefit from getting out of the smaller Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati as well as potentially solid defense from the Cardinals. His 2015 season lined up pretty well with his career numbers.
At just 28 years old, Leake's contract will end after his Age-32 season. This deal is reminiscent of the 4-year $40 million Kyle Lohse deal the Cardinals signed towards the end of the 2008 season. The deal is not that exciting, but Leake does provide some depth for a rotation that has question marks. Heading into the season, Leake will be the Cardinals fifth-best pitcher slotting behind Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Jaime Garcia. Signing that type of pitcher to a five-year deal at this cost is hardly ideal, but it does seem close to Leake's value, even if it lacks upside.
ZiPS for Leake in STL. I agree with ZiPS on this one - safe, reasonable, and not terribly exciting. pic.twitter.com/HNc5nogvcN— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) December 22, 2015
The Cardinals could have gone into the season with Tim Cooney, Tyler Lyons, and Marco Gonzales lined up for the fifth spot with Alex Reyes still in reserve. Each projects roughly the same as Leake, but at a lower cost. They are not as proven, and with injuries to the better pitchers bound to happen, the Cardinals sought security with a high floor.
After missing out on major targets, the Cardinals forced themselves into a position to chase wins on the margins. This deal is representative of that position. On paper, Mike Leake helps the Cardinals a little bit in 2016, and that could mean the difference in making the playoffs. The cost is fair market value, but it is high and will likely never be a bargain. The Cardinals were looking to get better in the rotation, and they got better, even if just a little.