The Cubs Should Target Mike Leake for 2021 Rotation

A little over a week ago I listed seven free agent starting pitchers the Cubs might legitimately pursue. That list was (mostly) comprised of budget-oriented arms, with the knowledge the Cubs are aiming to limit payroll heading into 2021 while remaining competitive.

Of those seven names Kevin Gausman might become too expensive, Robbie Ray has since re-signed with Toronto, and Merrill Kelly‘s option was (somewhat surprisingly) picked-up by Arizona. That leaves four pitchers still up-for-grabs, with Mike Leake perhaps the best candidate for the Cubs.

The Trappings of a Veteran Arm

With a few veteran starters leaving the Cubs via free agency, there are technically three openings in the Cubs’ rotation. Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks form a dominant duo, but for the Cubs to level out their rotation (rather than relying on a top-heavy iteration) a minor splash in the free agent market is necessary.

José Quintana and Tyler Chatwood are both expected to sign elsewhere, while a reunion with Jon Lester (on the cheap) is believed doable — unless he signs with Atlanta, a team that loves one year deals for veteran starters. Alec Mills (who posted an NL high 5.44 FIP among qualified starters in 2020) is better suited as a long-reliever/emergency starter. Adbert Alzolay, on the other hand, likely gets his shot as a full-time starter in 2021. That leaves the Cubs with one rotation opening, and it’s important for their playoff hopes that they choose wisely.

Chris Archer would be a nice pick-up as a flyer. Anthony DeSclafani is a known commodity given his career arc in Cincy. And Alex Wood, health permitting, might be a savvy signing on a ‘prove it’ type contract. Still, my mind can’t help but settle on Mike Leake as the best fit given the Cubs’ need for stability on the cheap.

Leake’s most appealing attribute is his durability. From 2012-2019 he started at least 30 games, logging no fewer than 176.2 innings in the process. Adding in his rookie campaign in 2010 (22 starts, 138.1 innings) and sophomore season in 2011 (26 starts, 167.2 innings), his career averages warrant appreciation: 29.6 starts, 182 IP, 4.05 ERA, 4.24 FIP, 1.8 fWAR.

Durability is great, as is consistently putting up a sturdy ERA (and FIP) while averaging over six innings per start. Those realities alone are enough to pursue the free agent, but Leake brings even more to the table, even if mysteriously so.

Leake’s Peripherals are Curious

The Cubs just won the inaugural Team Gold Glove Award from Rawlings, largely on the back of seven Gold Glove nominations and two wins (Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo). Infield defense remains a hallmark of this team, and Mike Leake is a ground ball machine.

Leake’s career 50.4 ground ball percentage would be a boon for a team with a sure-handed infield. Below is a graphic showing Leake’s ground ball rate each season against the MLB average:

Source: Fangraphs

Not all of his numbers are terrific, of course. His fastball (both sinker and four seamer) sits in the upper 80’s, with a heavy reliance on a cutter, mixing in a changeup, curve, and slider. While the overall results have been solid, Baseball Savant suggests quite a bit of luck. Here’s a look at some numbers from his 2019 campaign:

Leake surrenders a lot of hard contact, resulting in expected batting and on-base averages among the worst in the league. And yet he continues to outpitch his peripherals. It’s a curious reality, but he’s been doing it for long enough that it’s not a fluke.

Part of his success, of course, is the high ground ball rate, but that alone doesn’t justify his numbers. His sterling career 5.2 BB% provides further evidence, as does his slightly above average first-pitch strike percentage (61.5). Still, the answers are hard to confidently feel conclusive.

Per Baseball Savant, Leake’s Edge Percentage (essentially pitches on the black of home plate) is two points higher than league average (since 2015), and his contact percentage on chase pitches (67.1) is markedly higher than league average (59.4).

Truth be told, it’s hard to dispel a fear that regression is inevitable for the veteran. But his track record, extensive pitch repertoire, and ability to tweak his approach as he ages (along with assistance from the Cubs’ pitching infrastructure) all suggest he’s still a quality veteran starter.

I’m convinced he’s a fit on the Northside.

What Might Leake’s Contract Look Like?

As far as projections go, RosterResource (a Fangraphs’ tool) doesn’t provide any contract information on Leake, whereas Spotrac identifies his market value at one year, $9.9 million. Given that Leake will enter 2021 at age 33, opted out of the 2020 season, and enters free agency in what will certainly be a depressed market, I highly doubt he reaches that suggested value on the open market.

The only presentable comp for Leake at this moment is Robbie Ray (another starter I liked for the Cubs), who recently reupped with Toronto on a one year, $8 million deal. MLBTradeRumors predicted Ray to sign a one year, $6 million pact, Fangraphs’ Craig Edwards guessed perfectly, while Spotrac suggested his market value at one year, $8.7 million.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Leake is older (33) than Ray (29), and while Ray has a much higher ceiling, he also has a significantly lower floor. In short, the Blue Jays are paying for potential, the reciprocal benefit that a talented pitcher rebuilds his market value on a prove-it deal. Conversely, the team that signs Leake will be expecting a quality, back-end of rotation performance. His presence all-but guarantees a slightly above-average output, eating up innings with impressive durability.

In terms of value, I stand by my original assessment of Leake. A one year, $3 million base salary — with performance escalators such as ERA and IP pushing his salary to $8 — and a vesting $10 million option for 2022 (based on a high IP threshold) seems fair to both player and team.

The Cubs would be wise to invest in a starter this offseason, for a variety of reasons. Allowing Mills to serve as long-reliever and insurance policy, Brailyn Marquez to spend one more year in development, and granting Alzolay the space to endure growing pains as a full-time starter would be clutch for a budget-minded front office.

Leake is a durable, competent, consistent starter. Given the lack of financial flexibility this winter, he just might be the best fit for a Cubs team in need of a capable starter.

All Stats courtesy of Fangraphs unless otherwise noted

Featured Photo: Cody Glenn, Getty Images




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