There's nothing quite like writing 2,000 words about Mike Leake, only to have Patrick Saunders completely steal your idea, take your thesis, and beat you to the punch with his own post about the free agent starting pitcher that preempts yours by one day. (Kidding.)
Saunders' thesis, at least in my opinion, is the right one; Mike Leake would be a smart move for the Rockies to make this winter. Honestly, he's about the only free agent starter on the market that the Rockies could realistically pursue, while also being a pitcher Rockies fans should feel good about acquiring for the club's future (supposed) contention period.
Considering the class of free agents available next winter is a little light on starting pitching—with Stephen Strasburg and Andrew Cashner the best available mid-rotation arms—the case could be made for the Rockies to jump the gun a bit and drastically improve their starting rotation this winter.
That is, bring in a bona fide mid-rotation arm on a multi-year deal, lose in 2016 anyways, and then start a legitimate contention period with a few years left on the contract of this new pitcher. For fans, anyways, this may well be preferable to single-season buy-low candidates, and/or dead weight re-treads filling space, and/or reclamation projects—none of whom advance the ball for the Rockies beyond 2016, anyways.
Just as Wei-Yin Chen sits at the top of the realistic pitching market for the Rockies to pursue this winter, so does Leake. He won't come cheap—though he also won't be prohibitively expensive—but there are several reasons why the Rockies ought to consider making a serious offer to Leake this winter.
Scouting Mike Leake
Except for nine starts in San Francisco this summer after a trade, Leake spent his entire career in a hitter's park, pitching more than 1,000 innings over the past six years for the Cincinnati Reds. The 28-year-old is notable for having jumped immediately to the Major Leagues after being drafted by the Reds out of Arizona State University. In fact, he's thrown just seven innings below the big league level in his entire career.
Leake has also been remarkably durable in his career, averaging more than 180 innings pitched over his six seasons, and crossing the 190-inning threshold in three of the six years. His stats:
Clearly, he's not an ace—nor should that be expected of him in Colorado—but the Rockies need a (good) veteran to stabilize the rotation as young arms continue to rise to the big leagues over the next few years. Leake fits that bill. Here are some things to consider when evaluating Leake's candidacy for a rotation spot:
- Leake's low walk rate should be attractive to the Rockies; he only gave up 2.3 walks per nine innings in 2015 and has allowed just 2.4 per nine in his career.
- The righty doesn't allow the long ball, either. He's given up just 1.1 home runs per nine innings in six years in the big leagues, the vast majority of which were spent at Great American Ballpark, which skews towards offense.
- Leake's pitches result in a ton of ground balls, including a 51.8% rate in 2015 (which was 15th best in baseball) and a career mark north of 50%. While a high ground ball rate may not be an automatic predictor of success in Denver, it should help the Rockies feel a little better about a hypothetical investment.
- The hurler just turned 28, so he's a couple years younger than some of the other options out on the free agent market, thanks to his ascent to Cincinnati without first stopping in the minor leagues. The team that signs him will get two more years of Leake's prime than what's available from so many comparable free agents who are north of 30 this winter.
- Leake dealt with shoulder fatigue in 2010 (his rookie year), and then a hamstring injury last season after being traded to San Francisco which caused him to miss a couple starts. Other than that, he hasn't had any severe injuries that would hinder his potential acquisition.
- Not for nothing, Leake can hit, too! His career slash line is .212/.235/.310, and he's hit six home runs and sixteen doubles in just over 400 plate appearances. Zack Greinke he is not, but it's certainly not a knock against him that he can handle the bat a little bit.
- Leake has allowed more than a hit an inning for his entire career, and has a relatively low strikeout rate (just 6.1 per nine innings). He doesn't fool hitters or miss bats, but for mid-rotation starting pitchers, those numbers can be massaged—even in Coors Field, so long as he continues not to walk people—and it shouldn't raise too many red flags.
- Leake struggles to get soft contact; in 2015, just 16.5% of balls hit off Leake were struck softly, which was 68th among 75 qualifying Major League pitchers. That season wasn't an outlier, either; in his career, just 16.2% of balls struck against Leake have been hit softly. Obviously, that's a red flag for any pitcher who would be coming to Coors Field.
- The right-hander isn't overpowering, throwing a sinker that averaged 90.8 mph last season nearly 50% of the time, and complementing it with a cutter, a slider, and—just recently added to his repertoire—a knuckle-curve (at least in the opinion of FanGraphs).
- Off the field, Leake was arrested for shoplifting in 2011 after stealing $60 worth of t-shirts. To his credit, Leake went through a diversion program to avoid potential jail time, and he hasn't done anything similar before or since to run afoul of the law.
- In the only game Leake has ever pitched in Denver, he allowed six runs on eight hits in 4.1 innings (pictured above).
- Finally, Leake's track record against the teams of the NL West isn't anything special. To wit:
|Career vs. Opponent||G-GS||IP||H||R||ER||BB||K||HR||W-L||ERA||WHIP|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||8-7||51.1||49||24||23||9||34||5||3-4||4.03||1.130|
|San Diego Padres||6-6||35.1||32||14||13||11||21||2||1-2||3.31||1.217|
|San Francisco Giants||9-8||52.0||73||30||29||12||44||12||5-2||5.02||1.635|
|Totals vs. NL West||32-30||192.0||218||102||98||43||132||27||13-10||4.59||1.359|
That stat line isn't atrocious, and if the Rockies had a pitcher win 13 games with an ERA around 4.50 in 2016, I'd be a pretty happy guy. But relative to the amount of money the club would have to throw at Leake to bring him to Denver, his NL West splits ought to be a (minor?) consideration.
The case for the Rockies to pursue Mike Leake
A consistent starting pitcher who is entering free agency at just 28 years old, Leake is on that second (or perhaps third) level of free agent starters. He certainly won't command the money of a guy like Greinke or David Price, but he'll still come away with a big payday, in part because of how ridiculous the market is for pitching, and in part because, well, he's pretty good.
Leake is a smart play for the Rockies if they understand a multi-year deal for him comes with at least one wasted year (2016, since the team will suck), and then three or four years of contention afterwards, with Leake anchoring the middle of a rotation that hopefully includes some combination of Jon Gray, Eddie Butler, Jeff Hoffman, Kyle Freeland, Tyler Anderson, Jesus Tinoco, Antonio Senzatela, Tyler Matzek, and perhaps older options like Tyler Chatwood and Chad Bettis.
In other words, the Rox are long on young pitchers who might work out—as they stockpile options to hedge their bets as some prospects inevitably won't succeed—and short on certainties as Jorge De La Rosa reaches the twilight of his career. Leake would be that new certainty, a mid-staff anchor in what should be a young, exciting rotation. (As a hyperbolic comparison, think of Leake as similar to Bartolo Colon or Jonathon Niese in the Mets' rotation, surrounded by young aces.)
Statistically, Leake does things the Rockies should like (low on walks, low on home runs), and while he gives up a few hits, he has the repertoire that should hunt at Coors Field, and the track record that proves he won't (shouldn't?) completely blow up in Denver.
The case against Mike Leake
I asked the Purple Row staff about what might be a realistic offer the Rockies could make to attract Leake, considering that MLB Trade Rumors projects him to get $80 million over five years. Our consensus for the Rockies to make an offer? Five years, $90 million, with a sixth year option. Ouch.
I know, that's a ton of money. Get used to it; the Rockies have to overpay the predictions because that's what it takes to attract free agent pitchers to Coors Field. But—and this is a big but—if the Rox are smart about player development and roster construction around Leake, and don't count on him alone to be their savior, $18 million per year on a starting pitcher isn't as overpaid as you'd think.
All that being said, a bust is a bust—and a bust making nearly $100 million hurts. If things don't work out...
Aside from the money, Leake doesn't throw hard and he doesn't have overpowering, notable stuff. That doesn't disqualify him from success in Denver, but less velocity and fewer bats missed mean more balls in play and, well, we all know how that goes sometimes.
Mike Leake's fit with the Rockies
A pitcher who doesn't walk many people, gives up few home runs, hasn't gotten seriously injured entering what is likely his prime, and can even handle the bat a little bit is a fit for the Rockies.
General manager Jeff Bridich is on the record discussing how important it is to be active on the free agent market, even if it means giving up a draft pick through a qualifying offer. While Leake is not tied to a qualifying offer, he's also at the Rockies' free agent ceiling, and while he won't cost Bridich a draft pick, Leake might run up damn near $100 million in salary.
It's a risk. A big risk. But if the Rockies are serious about contending in 2017 and beyond, and if they sell out to build a young team with their stacked minor league affiliates, they'll need a few important veterans to help move things along the next several seasons. Leake certainly fits that mold.
To get a better feel for Leake, I spoke to our very own Connor Farrell (have you emailed his mailbag yet?). Connor loves—I mean loves—Mike Leake. As in, I once saw Connor open-mouth kiss a Fathead image of Leake. I wish I were making this stuff up.
Anyways, Connor had interesting—and impartial!—insight:
"The thing we need to realize is Mike Leake is a good player. That much is established," Connor told me. "The Rockies have, for a long time, not signed good players. That hasn't been an effective strategy. Signing Mike Leake—a good player—means one more good player on the team that will take a spot normally reserved for a bad player. That's good."
Can't argue with that logic.