St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinals fill critical needs — except for big bat to replace Heyward

Mike Leake was signed by the Cardinals Tuesday to a five-year contract worth $80 million. The right-handed pitcher will fill the spot in the rotation left open when Lance Lynn went down to ligament replacement surgery in his throwing elbow.
Mike Leake was signed by the Cardinals Tuesday to a five-year contract worth $80 million. The right-handed pitcher will fill the spot in the rotation left open when Lance Lynn went down to ligament replacement surgery in his throwing elbow. Associated Press

Some of the hand wringing among the St. Louis Cardinals faithful has ceased — thankfully — with Tuesday's signing of free agent starter Mike Leake.

Prior to the announcement of that five-year, $80 million deal, you'd probably have to go back to Whitey Herzog's manic off-season of 1981 to find a time when Cardinal Nation became so collectively unglued.

Fans absolutely have that right, too. In fact, GM John Mozeliak practically invited it with proclamations about the organization's deep pockets and big-time free agent targets only to lose bidding wars twice to the hated Chicago Cubs.

But I digress.

This off-season is still far from over and Mozeliak can still improve on a team that some seem to have forgotten won 100 games last season. Yes, even without Jason Heyward.

The Cardinals are still in need of a middle-of-the-lineup thumper and there are plenty to be had, both of the free-agent and trade-bait varieties.

So it's with the understanding that work remains to be done that we take a look at what moves the Cardinals already have made and how they’ll make the team better.

Mike Leake, RHP

Yes, cinching a deal with David Price would have been great. Imagine him and Adam Wainwright back-to-back in the playoffs. Wow.

But I digress again — that ship has sailed.

Let’s compare, instead, what the Cardinals had in their rotation at the end of 2015 with what they'll have at the start of 2016.

Wainwright, 33, who has twice led the NL with 19 wins and twice more won 20, basically fills the spot vacated by defector John Lackey, who will be 38 by the end of next season.

Now comes Leake to replace the 175 innings pitched lost when Lance Lynn went down to Tommy John surgery. Leake, who just turned 28, tossed 192 innings in 2015 and averages 211 innings per season over his six-year career.

He also brings a lot of upside.

If you believe in the value of WHIP — the measure of how many base runners a pitcher allows, on average, per inning — Leake has routinely been one of the NL's best.

This particular statistic says a lot about Leake who has had success (64-52, 3.88 ERA in six seasons) despite spending the majority of the last three seasons with dismal teams in Cincinnati's hitter-friendly ballpark.

The Cardinals allowed the fewest base runners in baseball. Yet Leake's WHIP was better in 2015 than anybody on the Cardinals' staff, including Lackey's. He’ll be a better pitcher in Busch Stadium.

Nobody is predicting a Cy Young Award for Leake, but he is a capable replacement and potential upgrade on a staff that, statistically, was the best in baseball last season.

Jedd Gyorko, infielder

It cost them a popular and productive outfielder in Jon Jay, but bringing Gyorko to the roster was an important acquisition for the Cardinals. It's not just the right-handed power he brings off the bench (he projects 22 home runs and 74 RBI over a 162 games), it's his versatility and ability to provide depth where it was most lacking last season.

Pete Kozma was manager Mike Matheny's only real option behind his starting shortstop and second baseman. Kozma contributed just 15 hits — all singles — in 76 games before Greg Garcia was promoted from Memphis in the second half.

With no real backup, the innings mounted for Jhonny Peralta, who started 155 games at shortstop. He limped to the finish, hitting just .242 in August and .253 in September and October.

Gyorko, who has played four positions in the big leagues, can take some of the work load off Peralta in addition to spelling Kolten Wong at second base against left-handed pitching. Wong hit just .229 with one of his 11 home runs against lefties last year, while Gyorko hit .282 with a .358 on-base percentage.

Gyorko is more than a utility backup. Between the innings he’ll get at second, shortstop and even third, expect him to get 400 at-bats in 2016 and, hopefully, keep the starters fresh for the homestretch in a tight division.

Brayan Pena, catcher

Yadier Molina will be 34 by the end of next season and he's still catching 136 games per year when healthy. In five seasons, dispatched backup Tony Cruz has never appeared in more than 69 games and never had more than 142 at-bats.

Pena is an 11-year veteran and has been the Reds starter behind the plate most of the last two seasons. He brings durability and a better bat to the bench behind Molina.

Mo and Co. have addressed the Cardinals' major needs with pieces at least as capable as the ones they are replacing, save one — a big bat to take Heyward's spot in the order.

Until that happens, I'm betting on more hand wringing.

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman

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