ST. LOUIS -- Following their unsuccessful pursuit of outfielder Jason Heyward, the Cardinals turned their Hot Stove attention back to pitching, with general manager John Mozeliak specifically zeroing in on ways to augment the club's rotation depth. He found that desired fit in right-hander and first-time free agent Mike Leake.
Mozeliak introduced Leake as the organization's newest member on Tuesday, shortly after Leake passed a physical that finalized a five-year, $80 million deal that includes a mutual option for 2021. The value of the contract is larger than any the Cardinals have ever given a free-agent starting pitcher.
"When an offseason is unfolding, different opportunities pop up," Mozeliak said. "When this did, we decided it made a lot of sense for us. I do think it makes the St. Louis Cardinals stronger today than we were yesterday, and I'm excited about that."
It took both the Cardinals and Leake pursuing other opportunities before the two sides discovered their mutual interest. The Cardinals first made a run at David Price, ready to make him the highest-paid player in franchise history before he took the Red Sox's offer. All the while, Leake was focused on making something work with the D-backs because of the proximity to his home. Their interest in him cooled after adding Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller.
Then about 10 days ago, Mozeliak reached out to Leake's representatives to discern the possibility of a match. The two sides discussed short-term deals before eventually settling on a longer commitment. Leake's contract includes a full no-trade clause, as well.
"They came into the picture, and once we ironed some other things out, we knew this was the place we wanted to be," said Leake, who has chosen to wear No. 8. "I was looking to find a place that I could call home. That was something that was important to my family. They were willing to work with us, and we were willing to work with them."
Over his six-year career, Leake, 28, is 64-52 with a 3.88 ERA. He has those numbers despite making 85 of his 172 career starts at hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park. In six career starts at Busch Stadium, Leake is 2-2 with a 3.19 ERA and a 0.898 WHIP.
Leake made his Major League debut with the Reds in 2010, becoming the first pitcher since 1989 to go from the Draft to the Majors without logging any Minor League service time. Leake spent the first five-plus years of his career with Cincinnati before being traded to the Giants at the 2015 Trade Deadline. In 30 starts between Cincinnati and San Francisco last season, he went 11-10 with a 3.70 ERA.
"It was a very challenging first few years for me, and I think I'm finally getting to the point where I've learned the league a little bit better, and I think I'm actually close to getting better than I already have [been]," Leake said. "And I think being around people like Wainwright and [Lance] Lynn and Wacha and Martinez -- I could name the whole staff -- having the ability to learn from them and to mature even more, I think, is going to help catapult me."
Leake added that it was a "priority" of his to stay in the National League, where he can continue to contribute with his bat. Since 2010, Leake ranks first among all pitchers in hits (77) and doubles (16), third in slugging percentage (.321) and fourth in homers (six) and RBIs (23).
Because he changed teams midseason, Leake could not be made a qualifying offer by the Giants. That means the Cardinals, who are currently positioned to have three of the top 40 picks in the 2016 Draft, do not have to forfeit their first-round Draft pick by signing him.
The Cardinals first turned a serious eye toward the starting-pitching market in November, when they learned Lynn would miss the 2016 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. With Lynn sidelined and veteran John Lackey gone, the Cardinals lost 40 percent of their rotation's 2015 innings coverage.
Leake has reached the 200-innings mark just once in his career, but he's thrown at least 192 in three straight seasons. Each of the past four years, he has made a minimum of 30 starts.
"When you think about his talent and what he means to the St. Louis Cardinals, a lot was said and written about what we may or may not do this offseason, and one of the focuses was definitely trying to address starting pitching," Mozeliak said. "It was definitely trying to identify someone who has been a consistent performer, someone who can eat those innings. We feel like we were able to accomplish that."
Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
With a 3.82 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP across four consecutive 30-start seasons from 2012-15, Leake has proved to be a reliable rotation asset in mixed leagues. While he would need to dramatically improve on his lifetime 6.1 K/9 rate to be an upper-tier fantasy starter, the right-hander could take his performance to a slightly higher level with the Cardinals. Having spent most of his career dealing with an offense-inducing home park in Cincinnati, the native Californian has posted a lifetime 4.28 ERA at home as opposed to a 3.48 mark on the road. With the benefits of playing for a club with a pitcher-friendly venue, talented supporting cast and stalwart defensive catcher in Yadier Molina, Leake could be on the verge of a career year.