Leake could still get plugged into Reds' rotation
Team tells right-hander to prepare to start, even if role remains unclear
CINCINNATI -- As they work to prepare Aroldis Chapman for a transition from closer to starting pitcher, the Reds have not cast aside the pitcher many assumed would be losing his spot in the process.
Fifth starter Mike Leake appears to still be in the team's plans. Exactly where is unclear, but the club still wants the right-hander to be to ready to compete for a rotation spot during Spring Training.
"We've already spoken about it," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "We haven't named our rotation. The one thing we learned last year, you have to be able to work on the fly."
In Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Giants, ace Johnny Cueto suffered an oblique injury eight pitches into his outing. Leake was summoned to replace Cueto on the roster and pitched in a Game 4 loss.
Even before the season started, plans were foiled when three relievers went down to injury in Spring Training. It forced the Reds to move Chapman from a planned spot in the rotation to the bullpen, creating a place for Leake to start.
Price and manager Dusty Baker had the benefit of employing the same five healthy starters, including Leake, for the entire 2012 regular season. That is a rarity in baseball, and the Reds haven't taken it for granted. Only two seasons ago, Cincinnati lost two starters to injury in Spring Training -- Cueto and Homer Bailey -- while Edinson Volquez was delayed with a visa issue.
It emphasizes the need for rotation depth, and the Reds weren't keen on shedding any -- including Leake. To obtain leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo in a three-team trade from the Indians, general manager Walt Jocketty made good on his public desire not to deal starting pitching. Shortstop Didi Gregorius and center fielder Drew Stubbs were moved instead.
Before the trade was made, Leake was aware that his situation was tenuous if Chapman was added to the rotation.
"If that's what they decide, it's going to directly affect me," Leake said during Redsfest earlier this month. "Maybe they'll wait a couple of months and then throw him, kind of the opposite of [Nationals young ace Stephen] Strasburg," Leake said. "I don't know. Hopefully they give the five a chance to prove ourselves a little bit and if one of us is slacking off or doing something they weren't expecting, then throw him in the rotation. Hopefully they let us ride a little bit."
Leake, 25, endured an inconsistent 2012 season, going 8-9 with a 4.58 ERA. He made a career-high 30 starts and threw 179 innings.
The Reds' first-round Draft pick in 2009 who went straight to the Majors in 2010, Leake began last season 0-5 with a 7.71 ERA over his first six starts.
"I don't like to make excuses, but my control wasn't really there," Leake said. "I felt like I threw the ball pretty good. There were a few mistakes. That's how it felt the whole year. I'd have a good game and then not so good of a game. It wasn't too consistent of a year."
Eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, Leake led the Reds in victories in 2011 as he went 12-9 with a 3.86 ERA in 29 games, including 26 starts, over 167 2/3 innings. During his rookie season of 2010, he went 8-4 with a 4.23 ERA in 24 games over 138 1/3 innings before being shut down at his innings limit.
For the rest of his offseason and Spring Training, Leake is planning on making some corrections to regain some of the effectiveness from his two previous seasons.
"I'll probably get my changeup going a little more," Leake said. "I still have to look at some video and see if there's anything that catches my eye. I feel like it was one of those years that the mistakes got hit a little more often than normal."
As for Price, he and the Reds braintrust are still formulating how much use Chapman will get as a starter. They know a sudden jump in innings requires extra precautions, and that's where Leake could prove important.
Price gets the notion that Leake could be the odd man out when April arrives and Chapman is in the starting five. He doesn't believe that would be the end of Leake's story, however.
"From a statistical standpoint, Leake would be the obvious guy, only in the sense that he didn't win as many games or his ERA was higher than the other four," Price said. "That being said, you can't underappreciate what he accomplished in 2010, winning 12 games in 2011 and starting the season 0-5 this year and then rallying like he did. He's a good Major League starting pitcher.
"For me personally, I have very high hopes about what he'll be able to accomplish over the course of his career. By no means do I want to write him off or look at him as a long man or Triple-A starter. He's a Major League starting pitcher to me."