Moving to fill a hole in their rotation, the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday signed free-agent right-hander Mike Leake to a five-year contract.
Leake, who will wear No. 8, will receive $80 million, and the deal includes a mutual option for 2021 and a full no-trade clause.
It’s the longest and richest free-agent contract the Cardinals have ever awarded to a pitcher. Adam Wainwright signed a five-year, $97.5 million extension in 2013, but that was before he was able to hit free agency.
Leake settled on the Cardinals after an opportunity with the Arizona Diamondbacks didn’t fully materialize. The Diamondbacks and Leake went their separate ways following Arizona’s signing of Zack Greinke and its subsequent trade with the Atlanta Braves for former Cardinal Shelby Miller.
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I feel like this is a place that is very family-oriented, (with) guys that seem to mesh very well together. So I saw it as a no-brainer coming into this situation. ... I’m extremely happy I’m a part of it now.
New Cardinals pitcher Mike Leake
“Once Arizona got out of the picture, I was open to whatever team I felt fit my needs the best,” said Leake, who had “a few” other offers on the table but did not sign. “Arizona was an extremely at-home situation. It was my No. 1. Coming here has turned into my new No. 1.
“I feel like this is a place that is very family-oriented, (with) guys that seem to mesh very well together. So I saw it as a no-brainer coming into this situation. ... I’m extremely happy I’m a part of it now.”
Wanted: another starter
St. Louis has been seeking a starter during the offseason. It made a big push for free-agent left-hander David Price and also touched base with right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who eventually signed with the San Francisco Giants.
Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak said the team’s interest in Leake heightened a week and a half ago and began with Mozeliak having a conversation with Leake’s agent, Dan Horwitz of Beverly Hills Sports Council.
“One of the things Mike was looking for was a place to call home,” Mozeliak said. “Rather than trying to do something that just didn’t make a lot of sense, we decided to make the commitment of five years. We felt like that gives him the stability, and candidly, it gives us something we can count on as well. It made a lot of sense.”
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Leake, 28, was 11-10 with a 3.70 ERA in 30 starts last season with the Cincinnati Reds and Giants. Leake joins Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia and Carlos Martinez in the Cardinals’ rotation.
“I think we have a pitching staff full of (No.) 1s and 2s,” Leake said.
Leake throws a fastball that he can sink or cut, a curveball, slider and changeup. He reaches the low-90s with his four-seamer.
Mozeliak said the Cardinals don’t attach number to their starters.
“I don’t think we overthink that,” he said. “Really, we sort of boil it down to whoever starts that day is our No. 1. We hope our rotation is strong enough that you can make that statement. ... Mike is someone we believe has more upside in him.”
Midwest to west
The Giants acquired Leake from the Reds on July 30. Leake said San Francisco wanted to sign him before the end of the season, but discussions on a new contract never advanced before Leake filed to become a free agent.
“It never came to fruition with us. They chose other routes,” Leake said.
Leake is generally regarded as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. He will help offset the loss of John Lackey, who signed a free-agent deal with the Chicago Cubs, and Lance Lynn, who underwent Tommy John surgery on Nov. 10 and will miss the entire season.
“To get an opportunity to bring somebody like Mike Leake into our organization is something that we’re very excited about and take a lot of pride in,” said Mozeliak, who was able to take some of the funds originally targeted toward right fielder Jason Heyward and use them on Leake.
“A lot was said and written about what we may or may not do this offseason,” Mozeliak said. “One of the focuses was trying to address starting pitching. We were trying to identify someone who has been a consistent performer and someone who can eat those innings, especially with the loss of someone like Lance Lynn. We feel we were able to accomplish that.”
Battle in bullpen
Prior to signing Leake, Mozeliak expressed certainty that one of three left-handers, Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney or Marco Gonzales, could be the fifth starter. With Leake aboard, Mozeliak said two of the three could end up in the major-league bullpen.
Leake is 64-52 with a 3.88 ERA in six seasons. He is 9-2 with a 3.15 ERA in 19 career starts against the Cubs, the prohibitive favorite to win the NL Central.
“I’m excited to be a part of this rivalry that’s going to be coming about,” Leake said. “I think it’s a long-lost rivalry that’s coming back into effect. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind taking them down, so I look forward to it.”
Leake is 2-2 with a 3.19 ERA in six starts at Busch Stadium, a park that generally favors pitchers.
“I’ve never been a guy to worry about what stadium I’m in,” said Leake, who has won at least 10 games four times. “At Arizona State, I was in a bad park. Cincinnati was a bad park. I’m in the same stadium as the other pitcher, so it doesn’t really matter to me.”
Respect for Redbirds
Leake has admired the Cardinals from the opposing dugout.
“I was on the other side of the lines watching a team I had high thoughts for,” Leake said. “I really enjoyed watching the Cardinals go about their business and how they basically put together a dynasty, in my opinion. Now that I’m a part of it, I can proudly say I’m a Cardinal.”
Leake threw a complete game in a 2-1 loss to Wainwright and the Cardinals on April 19 in St. Louis. He threw eight shutout innings in a 4-0 win July 28 at Busch Stadium.
“Even though I ended up on the losing side of it, it was a very enjoyable game, actually,” Leake said. “It was one of the few times I threw my equipment because of how fun it was, the competition between Wainwright and I. I always enjoyed facing him. Now I’m going to enjoy learning from him.”
Cardinals rotation: Wainwright, Wacha, Leake, Garcia, Martinez
Leake has been durable, having averaged about 181 innings per season since 2010. His best season was in 2013 when he was 14-7 with a 3.37 ERA in 31 starts. Leake, a first-round draft choice of the Reds in 2009 out of Arizona State, set career-highs in strikeouts (164) and innings (214 1/3) in 2014.
Leake was on the disabled list in August with a strained left hamstring. He returned, however, and allowed three or fewer runs in his last eight starts.
“It was a combination of tight muscles and dehydration,” Leake said. “We came from Texas and went over to Atlanta. Two hot spots.”
Leake closed the season with a two-hit shutout against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“It was relieving to have a game like that,” Leake said. “It was a nice end to the season.”
Preference for NL
Leake expressed a desire to remain in the National League. He enjoys hitting and ranks first among pitchers in hits (77) and doubles (16), third in slugging percentage (.321) and fourth in home runs (six) and RBIs (23).
“I do enjoy hitting,” Leake said. “It’s a nice break from pitching once in a while. To feel like you can hit is fun.”
Leake also wanted to continue to benefit from his knowledge of NL hitters.
“It was a very challenging first few years for myself,” he said. “I’m finally getting to the point where I’ve learned the league a little bit better. I think I’m actually getting closer to becoming even better than I have (been). Being around people like Wainwright and Lynn and Wacha and Martinez ... I could name the whole staff. Getting to learn from them and having the ability to mature even more is going to push me and catapult me.”
Fine for now
Wainwright, Wacha, Garcia and Martinez all have battled injuries in the last year, so the Cardinals might not be done with the signing of Leake.
While expressing satisfaction with the constitution of the roster, Mozeliak said the Cardinals could change course as the winter matures and the situation remains fluid.
“I don’t ever feel we have to do anything,” Mozeliak said. “I feel like you’re trying to put the best club out there possible. You’re looking at what your options are. Ultimately, we’re very confident with our current roster. That’s not to say in two or three weeks we don’t switch and go down a different path. We’ve always tried to put this organization as being opportunistic.”