Odd Man Out?

Coming off a 97 win campaign the Reds have not been idle this offseason in attempts to improve their chance for winning a championship next year. The first move they made was retaining closer Jonathan Broxton with a free agent deal that will release Aroldis Chapman to join the rotation. This year's rotation was superb and Chapman's move will push Mike Leake outside of the top five.

The 2012 version of the Cincinnati Reds enjoyed success from its pitching staff atypical of editions past. They combined for an ERA that was close to the lowest in the NL despite playing in one of the more hitter-friendly venues. Perhaps a case could be made that is was the best performance by that group in franchise history. Without delving into details of that long history it's safe to say they outperformed any bunch in recent years and were the main reason the team recorded more regular season wins than any Reds team since 1976.

Of course the bulk of the innings came from the rotation and incredibly their opening day quintet did not miss a single start all season and consistently kept their team in games for an average 6+ innings per outing. It was a feel-good story that included a Cy Young contender, a high-profile trade return coming up big, a first-rounder having a breakout season, and a cagey veteran again effectively eating innings. Four of them won twelve or more games with sub-four ERA's and threw over 200 innings. And then there was Mike Leake.

Leake's career with the Reds has had some twists throughout his first three seasons. It started when he won a job in the rotation in 2010 after they selected him with the eighth overall pick in the draft and made his debut after throwing nary a pitch against minor league hitters. The right-hander was a pleasant surprise and their most consistent starter over the first half of that season. From opening day through June he notched wins in nine of fifteen starts with a 3.30 ERA. If his first half season could have combined with fellow rookie Travis Wood's second they would have garnered a lot of votes for Rookie of the Year. They teamed up to provide 39 starts for the Reds' first division winner in fifteen years.

In the second half of the season a rookie limit on innings and some rough outings left Leake off of the postseason roster. The emergence of Wood and hopes that Edinson Volquez would return to 2008 form pushed him outside of the projected rotation the next season but early injuries to Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey sent him back to the hill in April. He led the team in wins, was second in innings and had the only sub-four ERA in outside of Cueto's partial season.

With two years under his belt Leake had developed a reputation as a solid mid-rotation guy. Teams want better options to run out on opening day, but he was a good man to have in the back end. In 2012 he was knocked around early and his ERA inflated to over seven in May before turning his season around to finish at mid-four. He went 8-4 over his last 24 starts and pitched well enough for the Reds to win fifteen of them. Maybe not ace material, but the Reds were happy to get it from a number five.

Now as he prepares for his fourth professional season the 25 year-old seems to be on the outside looking in after the signing of closer Jonathan Broxton frees Aroldis Chapman to join the rotation. Chapman was a starter for the Cuban national team and since his arrival there has been an expectation that he would start MLB games. However over the first half of his six year deal Cincinnati found it a better fit to add him to bullpen depth where he's honed his skills. Earlier he had some control issues which are common for young power pitchers, but after a dominant season closing this year it appears he's taken the next step in development and there's no surprise that many in the Redleg Nation want to see him utilized in more innings.

That will happen with a sacrifice from Leake. It doesn't seem fair given that he's done an adequate job. Then again these are the big leagues and competition often pushes fairness out of the equation. Though serviceable as a number five, Leake does not have the stuff to defend his job against someone with Chapman's potential. The Reds would still be in good shape running Leake out to the mound every fifth day, but converting Chapman could boost to a rotation that is already one of the best in baseball.

The five-man is often overlooked and underrated. During the regular season they get nearly as many starts as the top-rotation guys and of course all of those appearances affect the won-lost columns the same. They really help their team's efforts when they stack up favorably against pitchers in the same role on their competition. First of all, for a team to have a clearly identified number five is a sign of stability from the other four starters. Teams with inconsistent pitching at the top of the rotation have to scramble with multiple options left over to cover innings needed from the fifth spot. If one were to define a number five as the starting pitcher with the fifth most innings pitched on his staff, then in 2012 Joe Blanton filled that role for two different teams.

If a list were made of the NL pitchers from each team using the fifth-most innings qualifier, then Leake would be close to the top of it. Actually a strong case could be made that he had the best year out of all of them not playing in a Nationals uniform. Statistically Barry Zito had a better season before considering another need that many teams have from their number five is that they work cheap. Zito's 15-8/4.15 came with a $19M price tag. Leake's 179 IP places him second on the list, ahead of Stephen Strasburg who was shut down by the Nationals at 160 innings. The point is that Leake has proven capable of manning an important role in a MLB rotation.

Offseason is a time for strengthening teams through trades and Cincinnati has done just that. Perhaps Leake's name was tossed around in discussions, but they've accomplished all their major offseason goals and he's still a Red. He's a handy and affordable guy to have around pending the success of Chapman's conversion. Also, it seems a bit much to expect that five pitchers will provide 161 starts for two consecutive seasons and significant action might be needed from a number six. Another consideration is that 35 year-old Bronson Arroyo is in the final year of a $10M+/year deal and virtually all of the experience of the top two prospects in the system has been at the AA level or lower. The problem is that Leake is a proven pitcher who wants to compete at the highest level and right now it's uncertain when those opportunities will come.

Whether it will be in Cincinnati or elsewhere, Leake's chance to continue his MLB career will come eventually and there's still some potential upside. As the Reds management scratch their head to figure out his role in the immediate future they probably realize that they have a "high quality" problem. It wasn't too long ago when a pitcher of his caliber would have been penciled into their projected rotation and they'd be wondering who would go behind him. The Arizona State pitcher has already provided unexpected contribution from the mound in his young career and he's even added to that from the batter's box on several occasions. It would not be surprising to see him do it again given the opportunity, whenever and however it may come.

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