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2014 in Review: Mike Leake

Leake just keeps getting a bit better every year

More of this, Mike.  It's fun to watch
More of this, Mike. It's fun to watch
Jamie Sabau

Mike Leake is dependable.  He's durable, a workhorse, a competitor, and an all-around athlete.  And he has made small yet measurable improvements every year he has spent in the big leagues on his way to a career best year in 2014.  At 27 (and as a pitcher who does not rely on overpowering stuff to be successful) he may even still have some room for more of those small but steady improvements.

Leake was drafted 8th overall in the 2009 class, and he did something incredibly rare in the modern day and age of baseball: he skipped the minor leagues entirely.  Not only that, but he found himself inserted into the starting rotation for the 2010 Reds without a single professional inning at any level under his belt.  And he succeeded right away.  In that 2010 season he threw almost 140 innings with a league-average ERA.  Since then, while his ERA has continually hovered around league average, his innings have progressed every year (surpassing 200 for the first time in 2014), and along with it, his fWAR, as his FIP has shown a steady decrease through his career.

So when 2014 rolled around, expectations for Leake basically amounted to doing what he'd always done: provide consistent quality outings in the middle of the rotation.  Leake did perhaps more than that, as he basically matched or set career bests for starts, strikeout rate, walk rate, HR rate, GB%, LOB%, and xFIP.  As an added bonus, Leake also returned to form somewhat with the bat (career high HR, doubles, runs, RBI, and 2nd-best SLG) after a very down year last year, at least by his own standards.  Speaking of his hitting, Leake is perennially one of the most productive hitting pitchers in MLB, adding an "invisible" 50% of his pitching WAR value to his career total.  To cap it off, Leake is also one of the best fielding pitchers in baseball.  Since his debut in 2010, he is 7th in all of MLB in defensive runs saved  as a pitcher (6th if adjusted for innings).  Coincidentally, he is immediately behind teammate Johnny Cueto and immediately ahead of teammate Bronson Arroyo.  Maybe the Reds have identified an interesting market inefficiency...  At any rate, adding his varied contributions all around the diamond, Leake was a 2.5-3 WAR player in 2014.

2015 represents Leake's final year of arbitration.  At just under $6 million last season, Leake is probably going to collect something in the neighborhood of $10 million in 2015 if the Reds simply want to play out his final year of team control.  At his level of production he is certainly worth that and a bit more.  As such, the team has a number of potential paths to take with Leake's future.  He has some moderate trade value at his arbitration price, and the team has more glaring needs than the rotation, so Leake could be used in trade to strengthen the 2015 push.  Of the 2016 FA eligible pitchers, Leake would be the cheapest to sign long-term, so that is also a possibility.  Or the Reds could hold him for 2015 and then take a compensation pick when he leaves via free agency in 2016.  Personally, I'd enjoy seeing Leake signed into free agency as he is a fan favorite and fun to watch, but all of these options have their potential appeal given the team's position in the competitive cycle.