Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Moving Mike Leake to bullpen could be best for all

The plan to transition Cuban phenom Aroldis Chapman from reliever to starter is one widely welcomed by Reds fans. In fact, it is probably a move that is being secretly lauded by current Reds players as well. However, there may one guy in particular who isn't so thrilled by the team's decision. And that guy is right-hander Mike Leake.

This is because Chapman's new role likely puts Leake in a precarious position. The 25-year old has been a fixture in the Reds rotation since breaking into the big show at the beginning of the 2010 season. But he may soon find himself on the outside looking in, both figuratively and literally. With Chapman presumably taking Leake's spot in the rotation, Leake will begin the 2013 campaign watching games from the bullpen (barring injury).

Pitching in relief is something Leake hasn't had to deal with since his freshman year (2007) at Arizona State when he began the year as their closer. By midseason though, he was serving as the Sun Devils' starting ace. He has been rocking the high socks and starting games ever since.

With that in mind, perhaps a change of pace wouldn't be so bad for the former first round pick? After posting a solid individual showing in 2011 (12-9, 3.86 ERA), Leake fell off a bit in '12 (8-9, 4.58). He often became the target of intense scrutiny from fans during sub-par outings. Many were even calling for skipper Dusty Baker to pull him out of the rotation in favor of someone else. Yet Baker stuck to his guns and Leake eventually turned in a less-than-stellar, but respectable season for the National League Central champs.

And now here we are on the heels of '12 and on the brink of '13 -- wondering how a team who won the division crown but was bounced in the NLDS can improve their chances on making a deeper run next time around. One decision that empirical evidence suggests is a step toward that direction is swapping Chapman and Leake. Nothing is ever certain, of course, but all indications are that this is a move that could potentially pay huge dividends in the form of winning.

One could make a strong case that Chapman was the club's biggest pitching asset last season, aside from maybe Johnny Cueto. Conversely, one could also make a case that Leake was one of the team's biggest pitching weaknesses. Naturally, wouldn't the solution be to maximize Chapman's involvement (aka: more innings pitched) and minimize Leake's (aka: fewer innings pitched)? It seems to make sense, right?

Sam LeCure is just one example of how switching to the 'pen has benefited both the team and the player. Although LeCure came up through the farm system as a starter, he has certainly found a niche in a relief role. His ability to adapt has made him one of the more reliable middle relief arms on the roster. Could Leake follow in his footsteps?

Well, that obviously remains to be seen. Although Leake hasn't fared well in his five career relief appearances (0-1, 17.36 ERA, 4.2 IP), his career innings splits indicate that he could be successful as a reliever. His career ERA in each of the first, second, and third innings are much lower than his overall career ERA of 4.23. That's a good sign for relievers who usually don't toss more than three innings in a game at once.

Furthermore, a potential decrease in workload should help the light-throwing Leake increase the consistent velocity on his fastball. Heck, it may even help him add more bite on his breaking stuff. His command may even sharpen up as well. And for a pitcher who prides himself on dotting the corners and outsmarting hitters, every extra physical advantage gained is huge.

Leake may or may not work out as reliever, but it is in the best interest of the Reds that they at least try. Cincinnati thought highly enough of the Fallbrook, Cali. native to use the eighth overall selection on him in the '09 Draft, so we know he can pitch a little bit. Additionally, there is always a possibility that he could get thrusted back into a starting job because of an unforeseen injury to one of the other starters. But the odds are that Leake will begin next season alongside Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall, and the others on the relief staff. And that isn't a bad thing at all.

If all else fails, Leake could very well try his hand at being a position player. Because the man sure has shown the ability to hit (.274 AVG in 195 career PA).

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