JUPITER, Fla. -- Mike Leake is on the other side of the Reds-Cardinals rivalry now, and he's ecstatic about being in St. Louis.
The Reds are in a serious rebuilding mode, and the Cardinals, well, they're always the Cards, one of the top teams in the National League and a prime contender to win the NL Central for the fourth year in a row.
"It was a no-brainer once we looked at where we were at," the right-hander said on Sunday morning about the five-year, $80 million contract he signed with the Cardinals as a free agent on Dec. 22. "I'm actually glad to be on this side of it rather than [the Cincinnati] side of it. I think it's a great ballclub that I can learn a lot from."
It's not exactly as if the Reds gave him a choice. They traded Leake to the Giants for a pair of Minor Leaguers this past July 30, dispatching the last of their healthy and active front-line pitchers. From that date on, Cincinnati set a record by starting a rookie pitcher every game for the remainder of the season.
As few as three seasons ago, the Reds won 90 games under manager Dusty Baker, who was dismissed after they lost the 2013 NL Wild Card Game to the Pirates. The starting rotation was formidable: Leake, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo.
All of them have been deployed throughout Major League Baseball save for Bailey, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Cueto signed with the Giants, Latos with the White Sox, and Arroyo, bouncing back from his own Tommy John surgery, is trying to make the Nationals, managed now by Baker.
"We had a good rotation, we had a good run," said Leake, the eighth overall pick by the Reds in the 2009 Draft. "It just didn't work out. We didn't put a full season together as a team. Now they're in the rebuild mode. It's a tough situation for them."
"It's kind of weird," Leake said. "It was those three coming up kind of as the core three who were going to make that team run. Now everybody else is gone around them, and they're still there."
The Cards certainly weren't Leake's top choice. No. 1 was the D-backs, followed by the Nationals and Astros, he said. The Giants never showed much interest. Leake suffered a left hamstring injury and missed two weeks there just after the trade, finishing 2-5 with a 4.07 ERA in nine starts.
"We talked, but they weren't gung-ho about me," said Leake about San Francisco, which signed Cueto and Jeff Samardzija after losing the Zack Greinke sweepstakes to Arizona. "They weren't too impressed by how I produced. I think I was their Plan D."
From a personal standpoint, Leake favored Arizona, since his parents spend winter in the Phoenix area. His father, Chris, was paralyzed from the waist down several years ago in a construction accident. It would have been a perfect chance for Leake to spend more time with his dad.
But after the D-backs signed Greinke and obtained Shelby Miller in a trade with the Braves, those negotiations simply broke down.
"[The D-backs] would have been great," Leake said. "But it just didn't work out."
Meanwhile, the Cardinals weren't seriously in the market for a starting pitcher until Lance Lynn was lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery this past November.
"That played a factor with Lance going down," Leake said matter-of-factly. "If that hadn't happened, I probably wouldn't be here."
As it is, the Cards came into camp with ace Adam Wainwright having missed most of the season after tearing his left Achilles and Carlos Martinez rebounding from a right shoulder strain that ended his 2015 season in late September.
Martinez has thrown off the mound twice already this spring and says his shoulder feels strong, but it's wait-and-see with him, manager Mike Matheny said. Leake threw his second full-throttle bullpen session on Sunday and had no issues. Leake has never missed a start in his five-year career because of an arm injury. He's durable.
Matheny loves that.
"We've seen him from the other dugout many times," Matheny said. "He's a guy who just controls himself. He controls the strike zone. He maximizes the plate, stretches it, and gets hitters to expand it as well. He's a smart pitcher who can locate just about anything. He truly has mastered his mechanics. It's great for our young guys to watch."
The admiration is mutual. As the Reds battled the Cardinals in the NL Central, Leake knew the two organizations were coming from vastly different places. The Reds haven't been to the NL Championship Series since 1995 and haven't won or played in the World Series since sweeping the A's in 1990.
The Cards have been to the World Series four times since 2004, winning twice, and the NLCS four times in the past five years. That's a lot of winning.
"Yeah, the winning tradition was a big part of me coming here," Leake said. "But really, it's about being around a group of guys who have a common goal. They want to play the game of baseball. They don't want to be here just to be here. They want to accomplish something together.
"And it's not just the players. It takes a good mesh of everybody to be on the same page. It seems that way here, and that's why they've been successful for so long."