The Chicago Cubs could be aggressive shoppers in the free agent market this offseason, so it’s worth taking a look at some of the players who could be of potential interest to the team. These players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs and talent levels.
Performance in 2015
We have broken down into the second tier of the 2016 free agent starting pitchers market. While Price and Greinke are arguably in a tier above Cueto and Zimmerman themselves, the drop off after the latter two is much more significant.
Indeed, Mike Leake is a fine pitcher, but not much more than that. In 2015, he kept a middling 3.70 ERA, but his FIP (4.20) and xFIP (3.93) were a good deal worse. At least some of that difference is because his strikeout rate is moderately low at just 15.3% and his BABIP (.260) was a good deal below his career mark.
His ground ball rate in 2015 (51.8%) is actually quite impressive, and has been throughout his career. In fact, that is probably the biggest draw to Leake, but will get to that in a second. His 2015 line drive (21.6%) is the highest it’s been in several years, which isn’t great to see, but he did post his best Soft% (16.5%) since 2011, when it was much, much better at 22.2%. 2015 Mike Leake was a lot like rest-of-his-career Mike Leake. So let’s take a closer look at exactly what that has been.
Performance before 2015
Drafted eighth overall in 2009, Leake first broke camp with the Cincinnati Reds in 2010, having played only in the Arizona Fall League. Interestingly, Leake is the first player since Xavier Nady to go directly to MLB (where his first start was 6 2/3 IP 4H 1ER against the Chicago Cubs) from the draft. In his rookie year he amassed 0.8 WAR in 138.1 innings, across 22 starts and two appearances out of the pen. From then on, he bounced between 1.4 WAR (2012) and 2.3 WAR (2014), never really breaking out beyond a middle-of-the-rotation type, at best.
Leake can sort of be labeled as a “workhorse” – which I consider an average-ish pitcher who can more or less guarantee a mediocre+ performance over at least 180IP. Throughout his career, he’s averaged roughly 180 IP per season, but that comes with just one year over 200, one year he was sent down to AAA, and one injury-shortened year in 2010. Although, he has generally been pretty healthy (more on that in a bit), and has thrown over 192 IP each of his last three seasons.
Leake has maintained pretty great walk rates throughout his career. While his rookie season was the highest (8.1%), it was never above 6.3% (2015) since. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been unable to couple that control with an equally impressive strikeout rate –maxing out at 18.2% in 2014.
Like I mentioned previously, Leake’s calling card is his ability to induce ground balls at a pretty impressive rate. Throughout his career he has forced batters to put the ball on the ground just about half the time it’s put in play. Given that we consider 40% relatively strong, his ground ball rate is nearly elite (15th best in baseball in 2015, for example).
Projection for 2016 and Beyond.
What Leake fails to offer in upside, he provides in consistency. His 28th birthday is tomorrow, and a team could do much worse than a young, healthy pitcher with a low walk rate and a high ground ball rate. Unfortunately, without increasing his strikeouts at all, he will probably never enter that next level.
Steamer doesn’t seem to love Leake for 2016, though, by now, you can understand why. The system pegs him for just a 4.14 ERA (4.22 FIP), expecting his LOB% to trend down to 71.0% and his BABIP to move back up to a more normal .298. It does, however, anticipate that he’ll make 198 innings. Maybe an inning eater is more appropriate than a workhorse.
It’s not something you generally have to worry about in a 28-year-old pitcher, but I thought I’d include that his velocity has been steady throughout his career. While he’s never lit up the radar gun, he has consistently sat between 89-91 MPH, including 2015.
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
Pretty much every single prediction I’ve seen pegs Mike Leake for roughly five years and $80 million, though that dips to as low as $70M and as high as $85M. Five years isn’t much of commitment given the age, but $85 million sure is, especially for a guy without any projection left. In the end, though, his age, health, ground ball rate and low walk rate might march him right towards such a contract.
In his rookie year, Leake was put on the disabled list with shoulder fatigue and managed to reach only 138.1 innings that year (and it’s not as though he was a late call-up, if you recall he broke camp with the big league team). He did eventually make his way back that season though, coming off the DL in mid-September, though he didn’t pitch because he couldn’t get ready in time for the postseason.
He was sent down to AAA in 2011, but he still managed to make 29 starts that year at the Major League level, and then 30+ starts in each of the years since. However, he wasn’t healthy for all of 2015.
If you recall, Leake began the 2015 season as the Cincinnati Reds’ number two starter before being traded to the San Francisco Giants at the trade deadline. After making just one start for the Giants, Leake was scratched due to a strained hamstring and didn’t return until August 22. It was a brief injury to a non-pitching essential part of his body (by which I really just mean wrist, elbow, shoulder, arm or oblique), in an otherwise healthy year and, for the most part, career. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about Leake, but his health isn’t really one of them.
Speaking of that trade, for that reason, Leake was not eligible for a qualifying offer, and is thus not attached to draft pick compensation.
Fit For Cubs
In many ways, Leake reminds me of an older Kyle Hendricks with fewer strikeouts and more groundballs. Is that sexy? No. Could he be serviceable? I’d lean towards yes. The Cubs need starting pitching and more than one guy will need to be brought in – especially considering how quickly we saw the extreme back end depth disappear last season.
I wouldn’t be happy if the Cubs brought in only Leake, but I also don’t think that’s likely to happen. Paired with a higher profile signing or trade for a different starter, Leake could actually round out a rotation quite nicely. And I don’t want to underemphasize the fact that he is just 28 years old. And while he does not have a lot of untapped potential, he can be a somewhat dependable and economical cog in the rotation for multiple years. I am positive that many of you have your sights much higher, but Leake feels like he might fit on this team.