D-Backs Land Mike Leake from Seattle

Just moments before trading away Zack Greinke in the blockbuster move of deadline day, the Arizona Diamondbacks made an addition to their rotation, acquiring Mike Leake from the Seattle Mariners. It is the second time Leake has been traded since he signed a five-year, $80-million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals before the 2016 season, and the third time overall that he has been traded in-season. According to arizonasports.com’s John Gambadoro, the D-Backs will be responsible for just $6 million of the roughly $20 million still owed to Leake on his contract. The Mariners received 22-year-old infielder Jose Caballero in the deal.

Leake, 31, has been good for about league-average production and a lot of innings eaten throughout his career, and the same remains true for his 2019 season. With a 4.40 ERA in 22 starts, his ERA- sits at 101, which just so happens to line up perfectly with his career mark. His FIP, however, has jumped to 4.74, thanks to a career-worst HR/9 mark of 1.71.

The Leake deal was one of several the Diamondbacks made on Wednesday, though it was the only one that involved the organization actually taking on an established big leaguer. Greinke — along with $24 million of the $77 million owed to him on his contract — was sent to Houston in exchange for a mighty haul of prospects just before 4 p.m. On a much smaller scale, Arizona also traded backup catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Atlanta Braves, and in a rare flip of notable prospects, sent shortstop Jazz Chisholmranked the D-backs’ No. 1 prospect by Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel — to the Miami Marlins for right-handed pitching prospect Zac Gallen. Arizona was heavily rumored to be shopping left-handed starter Robbie Ray throughout the week, but no deal ever came to fruition.

Leake will join a Diamondbacks team that forged ahead with a plan to sell this month despite owning a 54-54 record and a +63 run differential that is third-best in the National League. They are 15.5 games back of the Dodgers in the NL West but just three game behind in the wild card race. Still, according to our playoff odds, they have just an 11.3% shot at winning a wild card spot, ranking behind six other non-division leaders in the NL. Arizona already indicated what direction it planned to take with a trade of franchise cornerstone Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals in the winter, and their performance this season wasn’t enough to convince front office personnel that a deep playoff run was coming this year.

To get something out of Leake, however, Arizona doesn’t need a playoff run to happen in 2019. He’s under contract through the 2020 season as well and carries a mutual option for 2021. After trading Greinke, the Diamondbacks’ rotation will consist of something like Ray, Leake, Zack Godley, Merrill Kelly, and Taylor Clarke. That isn’t an imposing group on its face, but once Luke Weaver and Taijuan Walker return from their respective injuries, it starts to look like a more impressive group of arms the team can enter 2020 with.

How much Leake contributes to that group is a separate question. He is part of an unfortunate club of pitchers whose average exit velocity allowed is higher than his average fastball velocity — 88.5 mph leaving his hand, 91.1 mph leaving the bat. That is not a recipe for success. He has above-average spin on his breaking ball, but his fastball spin is well below average. His hard hit percentage, xSLG, and xwOBA are all in the ninth percentile across Major League Baseball. Leake is not a Statcast darling.

And yet, he never has been. For 10 years now, Leake has skated by on strikeout rates around 6 per 9 innings, low walk rates, and lots of ground balls. For every 60-something color commentator who loves to talk about “pitching, not throwing,” Leake is a dream. He has never had an ERA- better than 88 or worse than 115, and he’s never had a FIP- better than 91 or worse than 113. He’s been as steady as they come, throwing at least 170 innings every year since 2012. If the D-Backs made this deal, it’s because they valued durability and predictability in the middle-to-back-end of their rotation.

The Mariners, of course, made this deal because they love to make deals, but also because they like what they see in Caballero. A seventh-round pick in 2017, he’s hit .268/.388/.396 in 198 plate appearances at High-A, good for a 126 wRC+. That offensive production has been consistent throughout his time in the minors, as have his wheels, which have helped him steal an eye-popping 28 bases (35 attempts) in just 43 games. He comes with a downside of having not played since May because of a hand injury, but this is a more interesting player than the Mariners probably could have expected to get when searching for a suitor for Leake’s contract. For the Diamondbacks, however, it was just the right price to bring a former Arizona State Sun Devil home.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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3 years ago

Godley over Gallen in the rotation? Why?