Mike Leake just signed with the Cardinals for at least five years and $80 million. He also got a mutual option year and a no trade clause out of St. Louis. The numbers sound crazy, but it's actually pretty fair when you think about it. Leake has been a league average starter for six years now, with a career ERA+ of 101. He strikes out about five or six batters for every nine innings. He doesn't allow too many homers. And he doesn't walk a ton of guys. He throws about 90 miles an hour, and he is going to be 28 without ever suffering a major arm injury.
The going rate for a win above replacement these days seems to be around $8 or $10 million, so as a guy who's averaged two fWAR over the last three seasons, Leake figures to be fairly compensated. This is where the market is, and the Cardinals didn't make a bad move to bring in a perfectly acceptable starter for market value.
But this is not a black or white issue. The problem with the Mike Leake contract is that it isn't a good deal either. Leake is fine, but he's not a bargain. There's no upside here.
The Twins have tried a similar tactic in recent years, signing perfectly average starting pitchers for perfectly average free agent deals. The results have been decidedly mixed. Ervin Santana pitched well after coming back from a PED suspension, and Phil Hughes has had one excellent year and one injury-marred disappointment. Ricky Nolasco, however, has been a total disaster, breaking down physically and posting a combined ERA of 5.64 in 196 innings between 2014 and 2015. There simply was not enough upside for any of the contracts to turn into true bargains for Minnesota, who has been forced into a relatively quiet offseason. These perfectly average pitchers are taking up space both on the roster and the payroll.
And that's the problem with Leake as well. There simply isn't a realistic chance that Leake will do more than just be there for the Cardinals for the next five years. CBS's Mike Axisa disagrees, however, seeing a silver lining in the form of Kyle Lohse:
Just turned 28, average as is, adding velo, goes to org that turned Lohse into a low-level ace. Leake deal is fine. pic.twitter.com/8GCMZAfnkI— Mike Axisa (@mikeaxisa) December 22, 2015
I respect the hell out of Mike, but I think his description of Lohse isn't accurate. Lohse was only worth between two and three fWAR per 30 starts for the Cardinals in his five years there. They got exactly two years out of him where he was worth more than three wins. Even if the Cardinals can aid Leake in a Kyle Lohse-esque improvement, that's not an ace-light. That's slightly above average. And that's the best we can reasonably expect Leake to do.
None of this is a criticism of Lohse, or of the Cardinals. Or of Leake, for that matter. It's damn hard to be an average Major League pitcher. But given the Cubs' big moves this offseason and the Pirates' ability to put cheap winning teams on the field every year, the Cardinals needed more than Leake is capable of providing if they were really going to open their wallets. At least fellow free agents Wei-Yin Chen and Yovani Gallardo have stronger track records and a history of turning in performances well above average.
As we've seen from Ricky Nolasco, there's no such thing as a pitcher with a high floor. The bottom can always drop out. If it does, Leake simply doesn't have the ability to make up that value in other years of the deal. And now, if it doesn't work out for the Cardinals, the no trade clause means they can't easily send him away either. It's a thoroughly weird deal in a weird offseason for St. Louis.