Major League Baseball may be a standstill, but teams can still sign minor league deals and the Cubs have now made a couple such moves to improve their pitching depth. A little less than two weeks after picking up lefty Stephen Gonsalves, they have added a righty with quite a strong pedigree and almost a decade of professional experience.
Per their transactions page, the Cubs have agreed to a minors deal with Mark Leiter Jr., son of former journeyman righty Mark Leiter, who finished his 12-year MLB career with Milwaukee in 2001. The younger Leiter is also the nephew of former Met Al Leiter and cousin of Jack Leiter, the second overall pick by the Rangers this past summer.
With all those Leiters, I feel like I should be playing a power ballad in the background.
Despite the sound of his name, the 30-year-old Leiter isn’t a flamethrower and hasn’t gotten great results across stints with the Phillies and Blue Jays in 2017 and ’18. Something appears to have changed for him, however, perhaps as he reinvented himself while missing two full seasons due to Tommy John surgery and the pandemic.
After putting up modest strikeout numbers throughout his career, Leiter was around 11.5 K/9 with a nearly 31% K-rate in 113.2 combined innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2021. His walk rate was more than acceptable, leading you to wonder how he was unable to get a shot with the lowly Tigers, though it may have just been a matter of timing.
As laid out in these tweets below from @RushingBaseball, Leiter was on fire over his last five starts of the season and picked up 46 strikeouts in 35 innings. A big chunk of those came against the Iowa Cubs when Leiter racked up 14 Ks over seven innings, limiting his opponents to four hits with no walks and no runs.
One of those last 5 starts was on Sept 10th against the Iowa Cubs where he pitched 7 innings, allowed 4 hits, 0 runs, 0 walks, and struck out 14. They must have liked what they saw.
— RushingBaseball (@RushingBaseball) December 16, 2021
Though there isn’t anything to suggest Leiter will suddenly break out and become an ace, it’s not a stretch to say he could be a perfectly capable spot-starter or swingman. He’s got a solid four-pitch mix — fastball, cutter, change, curve — and knows how to miss bats while still working in the zone. As Trevor Hooth described for Bless You Boys in August, this guy has the stuff and experience to help out in the right situation.
His arsenal is playing well and even though the numbers in Double-A look worse, he pitched the same way. A four-pitch mix that’s ready at any time, he’s a control-over-everything-else kind of arm. The walk numbers are low and even when the count goes to three balls, Leiter Jr. can fight without giving up too much on the zone. He’s the definition of pitchability allowing him to thrive where the raw stuff may not.
Even if we were dealing with a typical offseason in which big league free agency was still underway, this is exactly the type of move you’d expect the Cubs to make. As long as you don’t go conflating it with part of their primary strategy, it seems like a pretty savvy pickup.