Was Mike Leake the Right Addition for the St. Louis Cardinals?
The going rate for an average pitcher in baseball is apparently five years at $80 million.
How do I know this? Because that's exactly what Mike Leake got from the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday. Leake will join a St. Louis rotation that is loaded with arms, and will go into the season as the team's number-four starter, behind ace Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, and Michael Wacha.
That's a lot of scratch to pay your number-four starter, but with baseball's continuing insistence that it not die, the game continues to be flush with money. And pitchers like Leake are getting handsomely rewarded.
This is not to say that Leake does not have value. There is a lot to be said for being a league average pitcher which, if you look at his career ERA+ of 101 (100 being league average), is exactly what he is.
One of the biggest selling points about Leake is his durability, having made at least 30 starts in each of the last four seasons. He's also young for a free agent, with next year being his age-28 season. And he's coming off a very nice season for the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants, going 11-10 with a 3.70 ERA.
Leake posted a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 4.20, struck out 5.58 batters per nine innings and walked 2.30, and gave up a career-low 8.2 hits per nine innings. He doesn't miss a lot of bats, but he also doesn't walk many, and he excels in getting ground balls, posting the 15th-best ground ball rate out of qualified starters last year at 51.8%.
His Wins Above Replacement were not overwhelming, with his Baseball Reference WAR at 2.9 and the Fangraphs WAR at 2.0. And his nERD of 1.93 was 60th among all MLB pitchers last year, meaning over a 27-out game, Leake would give up 1.93 runs per game less than a league average pitcher.
That is typical number-four starter numbers, but $16 million a season is a lot to pay for a number-four starter. St. Louis felt they needed to do something after losing out on David Price and losing their own top starter from last season John Lackey, both to the Chicago Cubs. But is it enough?
Leake did a good job getting right-handers out last year, with batters hitting just .215/.277/.358 against him. However, Leake had lots of problems against left-handed hitters, with lefties slashing .259/.305/.421 off him.
The Cardinals are hoping that Wainwright is fully recovered from his injury and can lead the staff, that Garcia will have another outstanding season like he did in 2015, that Wacha can be the dominant pitcher he once showed he was, and that Carlos Martinez' right shoulder strain at the tail end of the season doesn't resurface this spring.
If all those things happen, then the Cardinals can stomach Leake at $16 million a year at the back end of the bullpen.
But at the moment, this contract seems like an overpay for a guy who is, simply put, an average pitcher.