The signing: The St. Louis Cardinals have reached an agreement on a long-term contract with free-agent pitcher Mike Leake. The deal is reportedly for five years and $80 million and includes a mutual option for a sixth year.
It has been a slow offseason thus far for St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak. The Cardinals made a spirited bid to sign marquee free agent David Price, only to get steamrolled by Boston’s seven-year, $217 million offer. Then incumbent right fielder Jason Heyward signed with the Chicago Cubs and made some observations about St. Louis' aging core that didn’t sit particularly well with Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.
The Arizona Diamondbacks, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers expressed varying degrees of interest in Leake. But the Giants spent $220 million on Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, and Arizona took care of the top of its rotation by signing Zack Greinke to a $206.5 million deal and acquiring Shelby Miller in a trade with Atlanta.
The Cardinals, according to a source, came at Leake with a strong offer about a week ago and then waited for a resolution. St. Louis had been hesitant to go beyond four years, so the addition of a fifth year in the contract was a significant concession.
The reason: After losing Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery and John Lackey to the Cubs through free agency, the Cardinals were in need of someone to absorb innings in the rotation. During MLB's GM meetings six weeks ago, Mozeliak acknowledged that it might be time for St. Louis to take a dive into the free-agent market. The Cardinals have endured a run of significant injuries over the past year, and they have only so much talent on the farm to plug the holes.
“I don't know if we're saying, 'Enough already.' It's more like, 'How long can you take the body blows?'" Mozeliak said in early November. “That's why it might make sense to start thinking about outside markets and understanding, 'Maybe it's time to be more aggressive.'"
The impact: You’ll get some difference of opinion on Leake. One scout recently characterized him as a “No. 3½ type" starter. With a career ratio of 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings, he’s the quintessential pitch-to-contact guy. Lynn threw his fastball a National League-high 85.4 percent of the time in 2015 (a tick above Bartolo Colon of the Mets). Leake, in contrast, relied on a five-pitch approach and used his fastball a mere 44.3 percent of the time.
One attribute Leake brings is durability. Over the past three seasons, he ranks 18th among MLB starters with 598 2/3 innings. He’s also an exceptional athlete and a good hitter, with a career batting average of .212. It’s no accident that the bulk of the interest in Leake this winter came from National League clubs.
Leake slots into a rotation that already included Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, who is recovering from a shoulder strain that forced him to shut it down in September and expects to be ready by spring training. Jaime Garcia will be in the mix again, health permitting, and the Cardinals have organizational depth with Marco Gonzales, Tyler Lyons and Tim Cooney.
Now that Mozeliak has upgraded his rotation and given Cardinals fans a reason to feel good before the holiday break, he can turn his attention to the next big item on his agenda -- finding a bat to help compensate for the loss of Heyward. The Cardinals’ next significant move will probably have to wait until after the new year.