It's been a familiar sight this season. Mike Leake exiting a game after the sixth inning, with the Cardinals knotted in a close 5-4 or 4-3 contest. The offseason acquisition has proved to be utterly mediocre in the first season of his five-year, eighty million dollar deal he inked with the Redbirds last winter, part of the group of four pitchers that have been the second-best starter on the staff in 2016 behind Carlos Martinez.
Leake's signing was greeted with mixed-to-positive reviews in the offseason from the Cardinal faithful. The general theme of the deal's opposers was that the signing was unnecessary, and an overpay for a guy who had put up relatively unspectacular figures throughout the first six seasons of his big-league career, spent predominately with the Cincinnati Reds and featuring a brief cameo with San Francisco last fall. At the time of his signing, Leake's career high in wins and earned run average had been fourteen and 3.37, respectively, both taking place in 2013. From 2010 to 2015, Leake had been consistently average, largely unspectacular when facing clubs not named the St. Louis Cardinals.
The total lack of any previous indication of excellence is the precise reason why people who disliked the Mike Leake signing were largely correct. The Cardinals began to have rumored interest in Leake shortly after John Lackey packed his bags and jumped ship to Chicago. Lance Lynn's Tommy John surgery meant that two of the cornerstones of the historic 2015 pitching staff would be gone the following season. Many optimists cited Adam Wainwright's return from nearly a full season on the disabled list as reason not to acquire another starting pitcher. Further arguments centered around the depth of pitching in the upper minor leagues in pitchers such as Marco Gonzales, Tim Cooney, Mike Mayers, Alex Reyes, and Luke Weaver. And even beyond the flame throwers attacking the upper levels of the minor leagues, the system was scattered with high-potential arms in guys such as Jack Flaherty, Junior Fernandez, Jake Woodford, and Alvaro Seijas.
My personal stance on the issue was that the Cardinals needed to go out and acquire an arm, but I didn't reference Mike Leake, David Price, or Johnny Cueto when I made these suggestions. The pitcher I wanted the Cardinals to sign was former Toronto Blue Jay and St. Charles native Mark Buerhle. And why an aging, nearly washed up arm over some of the most dynamic pitchers in the majors? Because the Cardinals simply did not require any sort of dynamic signing with the amount of depth in the minor leagues as referenced above. All that was really needed was a one- or two-year stopgap to plug the leak in the rotation (pun not intended) due to injuries and free agent departures. Mark Buerhle would have been one of the easiest signings John Mozeliak ever made, as the left hander stated at the beginning of the offseason that he would either join the Cardinals or retire.
With Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver both making their debuts this year, Jack Flaherty and Junior Fernandez each projected to arrive at some point in 2018, and two high-minor-league lefties, the aforementioned Gonzales and Cooney, out for the season, there was clearly no need for such a dynamic five-year-deal for what was literally the definition of a league-average pitcher.
On the staff this year, Leake has hardly earned his payday. While earning the second-most money on the staff, second to Wainwright, Leake's 4.54 earned run average ranks third, he's given up the second-most hits at 191, his won-loss record is fourth at 9-10, and despite having thirty-six more innings than Michael Wacha, who had a stint on the DL, he only barely beats him for strikeouts with 118, nearly ranking last on the staff. Leake has been worth just 0.6 wins above replacement, per BaseballReference.
And yet, despite Leake's neither subpar nor above-average output, he is still due to be paid $15 million a year for four more years. If those seasons turn out similar to 2016, the only service Leake will provide to the team is delaying the breakout of several more promising players from within the system.
There's a Leake in the pitching staff, and what a Leake at that.