Cheap Seats

St. Louis Cardinals fans still paying the price for regrettable Mike Leake contract

The word is that the St. Louis Cardinals don’t want to sign any pitchers to a contract longer than two years — and preferably one — because of the bad experience the team had with the Mike Leake deal.

The Redbirds had to eat a significant portion of the five-year pact in excess of $80 million that the team lavished on Leake a couple of winters ago to get the Seattle Mariners to take the hurler off their hands. But what I don’t get is why that is the fault of the length of the deal.

Usually, teams are reluctant to pay a pitcher for five years because they fear he’ll either get hurt, age poorly or suffer from a decline in effectiveness. But they got exactly what they should have expected in Leake. He didn’t get worse, they just overreacted to missing out on trying to sign then-free agent lefty David Price and made an impulsive offer.

Leake’s ERA and walks and hits per innings pitched ratio weren’t far off his career marks during his time in St. Louis. He is a mediocre hurler who was dramatically overpaid to produce mediocre results.

If it’s true that the Birds don’t plan on passing out longer than two-year contracts for starting pitchers, I hope this crop of young hurlers we’ve heard so much about over the past year or two pans out. Because they’re never going to get an above-average free-agent starter for that short of a term. The market very rarely works that way when top talent is concerned.

The Cardinals don’t need to win a bidding war for Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish. But it would make all the sense in the world to bring back durable and effective hurler Lance Lynn, who has expressed a desire to stick with the only professional franchise he’s known. Lynn will probably cost between a third and a half of the total dollars the previously mentioned free agents command. But he’ll be 85 percent effective. The problem is, how do you convince Lynn he’s worth two years and $30 million when you gave a guy who isn’t half the pitcher he is two and a half times that much money?

With an aging Adam Wainwright, a fragile Michael Wacha and other question marks in the rotation, it would be nice to have a guy like Lynn that you could count on to pitch every fifth day. He’s a guy that the Cardinals should have been pursuing before now instead of playing games trying to pretend they’re in the hunt for Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson or Arrieta.

The Birds have several young pitchers the leadership of the organization believes have a chance to be significant contributors. But it’s naive to think they’re all going to pan out.

We’ve seen cases like that of Alex Reyes who blew out his elbow on the eve of his rookie campaign, Anthony Reyes who never lived up to hype — at one point he was rated higher as a prospect than Wainwright — and everything in between. All the kids can’t be counted on to make the final step in their development. Even if they can, it would be nice to have a veteran presence on the staff to be their leader. Wainwright is on his way out the door while Carlos Martinez has his hands full working on reaching his own massive potential.

The party line coming out of Busch Stadium is that the Cardinals are increasingly satisfied with the roster as it stands. But I don’t see it. If the team doesn’t like the players available to them, say so. But don’t come up with some artificial standards to exclude anyone who could help this team. Saying that they won’t pay a starting pitcher in a contract longer than two seasons excludes anyone except rehab projects and guys on their last legs. Those players aren’t going to help this team improve enough to compete for a division title.