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Adding Leake shores up rotation

John Mozeliak finally got someone to take his money. And while Mike Leake certainly isn’t David Price, he will do the trick. With the deal happening quickly today, the Cardinals introduced their first Major League free agent acquisition in an afternoon press conference at Busch Stadium.

The Cardinals and Leake agreed to a 5 year, $80 million deal that has a mutual option for 2021 that would make the contract worth as much as $94 million, according to reports. That deal makes the largest deal that the franchise has given out to a player who had never played for the franchise before.

Leake’s new deal will also give him full no trade protection, so he will be in St. Louis through at least the 2020 season. He also now has the longest contract on the Cardinals. If there is a downside to this deal for St. Louis, it is the no trade clause. However, it can be seen as a calculated signal from an organization that intends to compete over the life of the deal. After all, contending teams don’t trade away MLB talent anyway, and the Cardinals haven’t had a losing season while the four digit year has started with a two.

Leake turned 28 last month and posted a 3.70 ERA and 11-10 record over 30 starts and 192 innings between the Cincinnati Reds and the San Francisco Giants. After spending the previous five and a half years in Cincinnati, Leake was dealt in July to the Giants. Leake posted a 3.87 ERA with a 62-47 record over his time with the Cardinals’ NL Central rivals.

There are a number of reasons that this deal is good for the Cardinals.

First, Jason Heyward is 1-for-14 against him. Checkmate, Mr. Heyward.

Second, he had a 3.87 career ERA in Cincinnati while playing half of his games in the very hitter friendly Great American Ballpark. His numbers bear that out too, showing a 4.28 ERA in GABP and 3.48 ERA on the road, including a 2.91 ERA on the road last season. With my unscientific projection model, I think you can easily knock half a run off that career ERA to set your expectation. I believe he’ll win 13-15 games with a 3.30 ERA this year.

Third, he is a workhorse. Over the past four seasons, Leake has started at least 30 games in each and has thrown the 17th most innings of any pitcher in baseball. Over the past three seasons, he’s averaged just shy of 200 innings as well. When Lance Lynn’s 200 innings hit the disabled list in November, the Cardinals had to find a way to fill those effectively and Leake has shown he is more than capable of delivering them.

Fourth, I think about the kind of pitcher that Mike Leake is. He’s a guy who truly knows how to pitch and doesn’t rely on cruising a fastball by the batter to get outs. There’s a lot there that reminds me of Kyle Lohse who, when healthy, was excellent for St. Louis.

There are some differences though. Most notably that Leake does a better job of putting the ball on the ground. Plus, you can count on Busch Stadium turning some of those home runs into fly ball outs. They’ve both got some facial hair too.

Fifth, it’s a great price tag. Yeah, $16 million per year in average annual value does sound like a lot for someone who isn’t going to be an elite level pitcher, but considering Jeff Samardzija got $18 million per year from the Giants just a month or so ago, it’s a good deal. On the whole too, Leake has been better than Samardzija too. Generally, Samardzija may seem to have more upside, courtesy of his 2014 season, but he has been heavily inconsistent while Leake has been the model of consistency.

Sixth, Leake will be 28 for all of next season. He’ll be a free agent after the 2020 season and will turn 33 years old following that season. So the Cardinals are getting the widely perceived “peak years” from Leake in this deal. That’ll be great, especially with a pitcher who pitches rather than just throwing the ball as hard as possible (looking at you Lance Lynn).

Once you factor all those things together, I believe Leake will perform much better than people expect him to. I tweeted earlier this winter that Leake was probably going to be the best value addition on the market just because he was best positioned to outperform his contract.

The main objections I’ve seen today about the deal is that he isn’t an ace caliber pitcher like Price and that Tim Cooney could probably pitch just as well.

On the first point, I agree. Mike Leake is not and will probably never be a staff ace. But that’s not what the Cardinals need. In a rotation that features Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez, another ace is a luxury item. What the Cardinals really needed was someone who could go out there, be relied on to take the ball every five days, and be penciled in for 200 innings. He can do all of this. And for half the price of David Price.

To the second point, I also agree. Tim Cooney is probably capable of pitching just as well as Leake is. While I was never high on Cooney as a prospect, after seeing him pitch in St. Louis last summer and get better every time he took the mound, I’ve become a big fan. Unfortunately, you have to look at the bigger puzzle.

If Jaime Garcia could be depended on to make 32 starts, I believe you can take the risk on Cooney being your fifth starter because you’re more willing to gamble on the next man up role. But that isn’t the case and the Cardinals have a history of getting lots of use out of the next man up by having a starting rotation injury in April or May every year. You want Cooney in that next man up role.

Because if Cooney is pitching every five days in St. Louis and Garcia goes to the disabled list, who steps up? Who is the next man up? Is it Marco Gonzales who spent a great deal of time on the disabled list last year? Is it Alex Reyes (maybe if he didn’t get caught smoking marijuana again)? I think if those guys are healthy, it’s a very different decision for John Mozeliak.

Being able to let Leake pitch without an innings limit will be a big positive for the Cardinals over a guy like Cooney or Tyler Lyons. The Cardinals needed to bring in a pitcher. David Price would have been nice, but Leake may be the best value on the market.

The only downside to this deal that I can see is that he’s going to wear the #8. A pitcher in a single-digit jersey? That’s just not right. It’s unnatural. If I were Mozeliak, I’d have voided the contract right then and there.

Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2010. You can follow him on Twitter at @JonDobleRBD, find him as R27 at RedbirdTalk.com and you can hear him co-host The UCB Podcast every fourth Wednesday night of the month. Redbird Dugout is a member of the United Cardinal Bloggers.

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