St. Louis Cardinals: Will Mike Leake exceed expectations?

Jul 5, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Mike Leake throws against the Milwaukee Brewers in the second inning at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 5, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Mike Leake throws against the Milwaukee Brewers in the second inning at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports /

With Spring Training underway, we will soon see the St. Louis Cardinals newest starter on the mound. Can he exceed expectations in 2016?

Spring Training officially began today for the St. Louis Cardinals as pitchers and catchers reported — among them is newly acquired starter Mike Leake.

When the Winter Meetings began back in December, there was plenty of talk about the fact that the Cardinals had money to spend. But general manager John Mozeliak stated that the team wouldn’t spend big dollars just because they could, and the bow-tie donning GM stuck true to his word. Instead, the Cardinals biggest investment came in a 5-year $80M deal for Leake. It wasn’t exactly the big splash that fans, myself included, were hoping for.

Still, with Lance Lynn lost to Tommy John surgery and John Lackey opting to join the Chicago Cubs, the Cardinals had a need, and in true Mozeliak fashion the GM went out and filled that need for St. Louis without overspending on a big-name free agent. To Mozeliak’s credit, he did try and sign David Price offering him the richest contract in franchise history, but it wasn’t enough to ship the lefty to the Gateway City.

So, as we look ahead to the start of the 2016 season, will Leake be able to exceed expectations? What exactly are those expectations to begin with?

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First off, I don’t view Leake as Lackey’s replacement in this Cardinals rotation, and that helps dial back the expectations I have for the 28-year old. Instead, I see Adam Wainwright as the guy who replaces Lackey. Despite a fantastic 2015 season from the 13-year veteran, I think most Cardinals fans would agree that if healthy Wainwright’s numbers will more than cover Lackey’s exit from the St. Louis rotation.

Leake will be the guy to replace Lynn instead, which is still no small feat. Even though arm injuries hampered Lynn in the second half of 2015, the righty still managed a 3.1 fWAR thanks to a 3.03 ERA and a 3.44 FIP in 175.1 IP. Leake managed just a 1.7 fWAR with a 3.70 ERA in 192 IP while splitting time last season between the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants.

But there are several reasons why I believe Leake will exceed expectations this season with the Cardinals. First off — the change in venue.

After spending the majority of his career at the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, the 28-year old will pitch the majority of his games now at Busch Stadium III, where he holds a career 3.19 ERA and an 0.898 WHIP. The cherry on top is Leake’s 19-9 record against NL Central opponents, including a 3.15 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 128.2 IP against the Cubs and a 3.01 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 155.1 IP against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lynn, on the other hand, sports a career 4.16 ERA and 1.31 WHIP against the Cubs and a 4.74 ERA and 1.51 WHIP against the Pirates. So, Leake, at least within the division, should provide a significant upgrade for the Cardinals over Lynn.

Leake’s bread and butter is his sinker — a pitch he threw 46.3 percent of the time in 2015. The right-hander shines at getting ground balls. Over the last two seasons, Leake ranks fifth in the National League with a 52.6 GB%. If he can continue that ground ball success, then he will do just fine with the Cardinals. If there’s a big area Leake struggles with it’s his home run to fly ball ratio which was 13.8 percent last season — his highest since 2012. That number will need to go down, obviously. Hopefully, more of those home runs fall short at the pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium in 2016.

FanGraphs projects Leake for a 1.5 fWAR with 12 wins, a 3.83 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP.

Baseball-Reference projections for Leake look like this:


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If these projections play out I don’t expect Cardinals fans to be overjoyed. I know Leake is set up as the fifth starter in the Cardinals rotation, but for St. Louis to yet again have one of the best rotations in the NL, Leake will have to step it up. I believe he will.

I peg Leake for a career-year in his first season with the Cardinals. Why not? If a then 33-year old Kyle Lohse can post a 16-win season with a sub-3.00 ERA and a 3.6 fWAR in 2012 for St. Louis, who’s to say Leake at 28 years old, and still reaching his potential as a starter, can’t do much of the same. I project Leake at a 16-10 record for the Cardinals in 2016 with a 3.15 ERA, a 3.40 FIP, a 1.18 WHIP and career-low 0.95 HR/9.

Next: Cardinals Against the NL: San Francisco Giants

Do you think Leake will exceed expectations in his first season with the Cardinals? Drop me a line on Twitter and let me know.