Cheap Seats

Cardinals shouldn’t have sprung for Leake

I have a bad feeling that the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans are going to regret Mike Leake’s contract for a long time.

The Redbirds signed Leake to a five-year, $80 million pact -- the largest contract ever handed out to a player imported from outside the organization. And I still can’t figure out why they did it.

Leake has been unexpectedly awful in the first month of 2016 with an 0-3 record and an ERA of 6.03. (I thought he was the textbook example of a mediocre pitcher. But mediocre pitchers win half their starts...)

He’s sort of like a latter day Jose DeLeon: Just when fans start to feel comfortable that he’s in a groove, he blows up like he did last night, pitching just as bad as he needs to in order to lose. Things are perking along just fine. Not a bump in the road. Then there’s a flare single with two outs. The pitcher comes unglued and aggravates the situation with a walk to the number two hitter to bring up the most-feared slugger in the opposing lineup and -- boom -- a three-run homer ruins the outing.

Leake departed, down by four, after only five innings pitched. He gave up as many home runs as batters he struck out: 2.

He’s allowed nine earned runs in his last two starts covering nine innings. It’s perplexing because Leake was fantastic in spring training, carving up opposing hitters when the games didn’t count. As soon as the pressure was turned up, not so much.

The problem I have with his contract isn’t his slow start. It’s the upside he had when he inked the deal -- or, more specifically, that he doesn’t have much of one.

If all five St. Louis starters were healthy and performing at the top of their game, Leake would be the second-highest paid behind only ace Adam Wainwright. But he, quite clearly, would be the fifth-best starter in the rotation with Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia all being far superior pitchers.

If the playoffs started today, I know that if I was manager Leake wouldn’t be tabbed to start games one, two or three. And the only reason I’d consider him for game four is the fact that Garcia has struggled in the post-season in the past. But, then again, Leake is 0-1 with a 10.38 ERA in the playoffs, throwing 4 1/3 innings in his only appearance with five earned runs allowed on six hits including two homers. So flip a coin.

Leake is a career 64-55 pitcher with a 3.94 ERA. He’s only reached the teens in wins once in his seven-year career.

It doesn’t make much sense for a financially prudent team to spend an average of $16 million a year on a fifth starter. I don’t care if Wacha and Martinez are balancing things out by being pre-arbitration players. It’s still a waste of resources. And what happens when the young guys get a couple of years under their belt and their salaries go up?

It would be devastating to have to let one of the young studs go because Leake is under contract -- and with a full no trade clause. It would be very disappointing to hear the team couldn’t sign a high-end pitcher or much-needed cleanup hitter because Leake’s contract was clogging the books.

Leake may very well overcome this weak start to become the pitcher he’s been in the past. But I don’t think that performance is worth $80 million.

I understand that the top players make big money because they put rear ends in the seats at ballparks. But has anyone purchased season tickets because they were so excited that Leake decided -- after he failed to land a contract with Arizona and San Francisco -- to take a whole pile of money to be mediocre in St. Louis?

Would the Cardinals be any worse off than they currently are if they would have gone with Tyler Lyons as the fifth starter? Wouldn’t the team have been much better if the front office bucked up and went the last yard to sign David Price, creating a rotation of Price, Wainwright, Wacha, Martinez and Garcia?

The only benefit Lyons brings is that he’s been relatively durable. But that quality can be fleeting when it comes to major league pitchers.