Reds' Leake trying to keep 5th starter spot
By GARY SCHATZ
GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) Right-hander Mike Leake cut his long hair before the start of the Cincinnati Reds' spring training, giving himself a much different look.
"I just thought it was time for a change," Leake said. "I couldn't grow it long in high school and college, so I rebelled a little bit."
It's not the only major change for the 25-year-old starter as camp opens. He's no longer assured a spot in the rotation, with left-hander Aroldis Chapman getting an opportunity to compete for the fifth spot.
Expectations for the first-round pick from 2009 have changed. He wasn't expected to make the pitching staff when he reported to spring training as a rookie, but earned the final spot in the rotation and made the jump directly from college to the majors.
He had two winning seasons, going 8-4 with a 4.23 ERA and 12-9 with a 3.86 ERA. Last year, he slipped to 8-9 with a 4.58 ERA in 30 starts. He filled in for the injured Johnny Cueto during the playoffs and gave up five runs, including two homers, during a loss to the Giants.
Overall, his third season was a disappointment.
"I told him the toughest years in the big leagues are the third, fourth and fifth years when everybody knows you," manager Dusty Baker said. "They know when you're not getting the breaking ball over. They know you follow a change-up with a fastball. Now it's up to you to adjust."
Leake is preparing the same way he has the last three springs, knowing there is a difference in how he is perceived. He also knows that general manager Walt Jocketty would like to have a left-hander in the rotation - Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Leake are right-handers. That could give Chapman an edge.
"Whatever happens, happens," Leake said. "You try to learn from what you did or didn't do. For the most part, you just try to move on. You try to get back to where you were mentally or physically, whatever it is that you needed fixing. You don't dwell on bad years."
Although Leake had a losing record last season, he set career highs with 30 starts and 179 innings. More than half of his starts (17) were quality starts. Leake was the victim of blown saves four times and the team had a 16-14 record in games he started.
Leake didn't dwell on the 2012 season over the winter.
"I try not to think about baseball when I'm not playing," Leake said. "There will be times this year where I will go back and look at video, but for the most part it is about finding the edge again. They know what I can do now because I've been here for three years. There is always competition every year. You have to stay healthy and prove that you belong."
The perception that Leake is slipping is overblown, according to Baker.
"There is no room for a marginal or bad year. People want to push you off to the side," Baker said. "Every pitcher I've known had a bad year. Steve Carlton lost 20 games. Greg Maddux had one. People forget those years. Leake is a Maddux type."
Baker reached out to Maddux and had him talk to Leake in the offseason.
"Greg talked to him about some things," Baker said. "I told Leake over the winter I need him to work on some things. I still have confidence in Leake. Two years ago, he was the talk of the town."
Leake is working on becoming more consistent with his pitches. He doesn't have an overpowering fastball, so hitting spots with all his pitches is important. When his control is a little off, he can get into trouble fast.
"I had some bad outings but when you look back, it wasn't that bad a year," he said. "It wasn't as good as the first two years but I still averaged six innings a start."
Although Chapman is preparing as a starter this spring, Baker is holding open the option of moving him back to the closer's role if there's a problem in the bullpen. He's not close to awarding the final spot.
"Right now," Baker said, "we have six starters."
Updated February 20, 2013