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Mike Leake: A lukewarm take

It's hard to find a lot of value when you're shopping retail, but that doesn't mean you've made a bad purchase.

Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Cardinals signed a free agent starting pitcher (who wasn't already with the team) to a multi-year deal, that pitcher was Jeff Suppan. Editor Emeritus Ben Humphrey summed up the move by saying:

The Cardinals' signing of Suppan in 2003 was not remotely sexy. They signed him for that very reason. The Cardinals wanted a dependable innings eater who would prevent the other team from scoring at a serviceable rate.

Fans were pretty tepid on the move, too. In a Post-Dispatch poll, 29% of fans said they expected Suppan to be another Brett Tomko.

In the context of the era, the Cardinals 3-year, $9 million deal with Suppan should have been worth right around one win per season. He posted fWARs of 1.4, 1.8 and 1.8, so they got just a little better return on their investment than perhaps they were expecting. But it's not like Suppan was a "breakout" who suddenly flashed huge upside. He was a league average-isn starter who made more than 30 starts each season, and the Cardinals paid about the market rate for that.

While memories of Suppan will always be rose colored because of his sterling performance in the 2006 postseason, even setting that aside, I'd wager most fans would still count him as a solid, valuable piece of those Cardinal teams.

So why y'all hatin' on Mike Leake?

While the raw numbers are bigger, both in terms of years and dollars, if you accept that Mike Leake is about a two win player, his deal with the Cardinals is fairly similar to Suppan's. It's also similar to the 4-year, $41 million deal Kyle Lohse signed in 2009 (after an audition on a one-year contract). In each case, the Cardinals are paying something like market value for a pitcher they expect to be a back-end, innings-eater type guy.

Several people have suggested that the Cardinals could have stood pat with their internal options: Lyons, Cooney and Gonzalez. Even John Mozeliak made the case for that until about 24 hours ago. Me? I'm a little skeptic.

Could these guys produce at a level not too far below what we expect out of Leake? Absolutely. But I feel like it's possible to get sucked into a "backup quarterback" phenomena where we count on their production before we really know if they can do it. Lyons, Cooney and Gonzales have barely combined for 200 innings in the majors.

When you factor in the injury risk with starting pitchers - and every single starter in the Cardinals rotation offers some additional reason to be wary - it's pretty likely you will ultimately need two guys out of that triumvirate to log a significant number of starts. It's certainly possible that two out of the three are ready to step into that kind of role this season, but I don't know that I would want to roll the dice on it.

Beyond this season, there is the question of whether or not Leake will continue to be valuable for the duration. Given his age (this will be his Age 28 Season) and his profile, which doesn't rely on overpowering stuff, I'm reasonably comfortable he will hold his value. And sure, I can construct scenarios where Lynn comes back and Alex Reyes is ready to step in and there is hypothetically no role for Leake... except Baseball Happens and you ALWAYS need a guy like Mike Leake.

Were there better options available? There are cases to be made. I was rather intrigued by Scott Kazmir, who I suspect could have been had on a three-year deal and whose potential ceiling is still pretty high. That said, the risk of outright disaster is higher, too - and that's the issue with most of the other options on the market. Once you've decided you're looking to play it safe, it's hard to beat Mike Leake.

Grant Brisbee at McCovey Chronicles made a similar point, when he asked the question if you would rather have Leake or Samardzija. They signed for pretty comparable deals, with Samardzija at 5/$90, though also with a draft pick attached. He's also three years older than Mike Leake.

Brisbee's point - and I think he's right on - is it's a choice between potential brilliance and steady, if unspectacular production. The Cardinals being The Cardinals, they went the conservative route. And I'd be willing to bet that - while Samardzija may have a couple peak seasons which out-pace Leake, it will be Leake who puts up more value over the course of the contract.

And sure, the Cardinals were likely never very interested in Samardzija, but the thought exercise gets at an underlying reason I think there has been so much backlash to the Leake signing. We were essentially promised a major free agent move this offseason, the kind of move that could (at least begin to) remake the Cardinals aging core. That hasn't materialized.

If the Cardinals had signed Jason Heyward and Mike Leake, I suspect the reaction to Leake would have been much more muted. We'd shrug, understand what they were going for, and move on.

But as the only significant free agent signing so far, Leake feels like a let-down. He's not a transformative addition to the 2016 Cardinals, but that doesn't mean he's a bad acquisition, either.