The Cardinals entered this offseason with the intention of going after some of the top free agents on the market. They pursued both David Price and Jason Heyward but reportedly finished second on both players. After missing out on their top targets, the Cardinals have finally made their first impact move of the offseason by signing Mike Leake to a five-year, $80 million contract, which includes a no-trade clause and a $16 million option for 2021.
Leake is pretty much the definition of a league-average pitcher. In each of the last five seasons, Leake has posted between 1.4 and 2.3 fWAR. He has a perfectly league average career ERA- of 100. While his career FIP- of 107 is slightly worse, this number appears to be inflated by Leake's above average home run rate, which could be the result of pitching his home games at Great American Ballpark. In his career on the road, Leake has posted a 3.48 ERA and a 4.16 FIP, so there is some hope that he can be a FIP breaker now that he will not be pitching half his games in one of the most homer-friendly ballparks in baseball.
Leake's biggest asset appears to be his dependability. He has made at least thirty starts each of the last four seasons, and he has only been on the disabled list twice in his career (neither injury appeared to be serious). He has pitched over 190 innings each of the last three seasons, and he likely would have eclipsed the 200 inning mark for the second year in a row in 2015 had he not gone on the DL with a minor hamstring injury.
The Cardinals value Leake's dependability because they have a rotation full of starters with recent injury issues. Lance Lynn, who had been the Cardinals' most dependable starter, will miss all of 2016 with Tommy John surgery. Adam Wainwright has missed nearly two full seasons because of Tommy John surgery and an Achilles tear. He also had an elbow issue in 2014, just his third season back from Tommy John surgery, and it was serious enough that he needed minor surgery last offseason. Carlos Martinez suffered a shoulder injury in late September, which caused him to miss the rest of the season. Michael Wacha dealt with a rare stress reaction in his shoulder in 2014, which caused him to miss over two months of the season. And Jaime Garcia is the biggest injury risk of all, having gone through three arm surgeries in his career (Tommy John, rotator cuff, thoracic outlet).
People who take issue with this contract will point out that Leake is not that much of an improvement over the Cardinals' in-house options of Tyler Lyons, Marco Gonzales, and Tim Cooney. I tend to agree with this assessment, but I can at least understand why the Cardinals felt the need to bring in a dependable back of the rotation starter like Leake. In 2015, the Cardinals had eight starters make at least four starts. The same was true in 2013, and in 2014, they had a whopping eleven pitchers make at least four starts. The Cardinals have dealt with a high number of pitcher injuries over the last few years, and they understand as well as anyone the importance of having a deep starting rotation.
Still, $80 million over five years may seem like a lot for a pitcher of Leake's caliber, but in this day and age, that is the going rate for a league average starting pitcher. Back in April, we saw the Red Sox give Rick Porcello a four-year, $82.5 million contract, despite the fact that Porcello had never had a three fWAR season in his career. The cost of a win is now somewhere around eight million, so it would not be unreasonable to expect Leake to be a two-win pitcher over the next five years. Leake is also one of the best hitting and fielding pitchers in baseball, so his total value may be slightly higher than what his pitching numbers would suggest. Since 2010, he has posted a non-pitching fWAR of 2.9, trailing only Zack Greinke and Madison Bumgarner, so it is not unreasonable to expect a half win of non-pitching value from Leake each season.
The Cardinals may have paid a lot for a marginal upgrade in Leake, but he will bring much needed dependability to their starting rotation. Although Leake may not have the upside of some of the other starting pitchers available this winter, he fills a need for the Cardinals and helps put them in a good position to make the playoffs for the sixth year in a row.