Mariners Allow Cardinals to Rid Selves of Mike Leake

For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, let me set the scene real quick. The Mariners are involved in that big giant fight for the AL’s second wild-card position. None of the teams in the picture are actually good, but all anyone will need is one more win than the rest of the pack. At that point, the playoffs will beckon, and, who knows? So that’s part of it. The other part is that the Mariners’ rotation was supposed to include James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Drew Smyly, and Hisashi Iwakuma. Right now the rotation includes none of them. On the year, the Mariners’ rotation ranks 28th in baseball in WAR. Over the past month, they’re dead last, a few hairs below replacement. What do you do when you have a rotation that’s bad? One of the things you can do, I suppose, is acquire Mike Leake.

In part because of Luke Weaver, Leake became expendable in St. Louis. He remains under contract through 2020. Here are the details of the swap:

Mariners get

  • Mike Leake
  • $0.75 million in international bonus space
  • About $17 million in salary relief (via Ken Rosenthal)

Cardinals get

The Mariners have added yet another back-end starter. At least this one is a little different from the others.

Let’s simplify this one right away. Teams don’t value one dollar of international spending money at one dollar. Because of the spending caps in place, those dollars are priced at a premium. I’ve heard one dollar is worth three dollars, and I’ve heard one dollar is worth more like four dollars. The point here is that the Mariners effectively added a few million dollars in international value. That’ll turn into a long-term prospect or three. That probably more or less cancels out the Ascanio bit. Ascanio doesn’t show up on the usual organizational prospect lists. He’s a 21-year-old shortstop in the low minors who has yet to hit. His glove has drawn praise in the past, and this year he’s hit more fly balls than ever, showing some power. Ascanio could become something some day. Especially in the hands of the Cardinals.

So you can break this into two parts. The Mariners and Cardinals swapped Ascanio for different, unknown names. It’s basically even. And then the Cardinals are giving Leake to the Mariners, with the Mariners taking on the bulk of his contract. This is a salary dump, but with the Cardinals picking up just enough that Leake should cost a fair price. Ultimately, that’s how you expect these moves to go. When one team is paying down a player, the ideal point is the one at which both teams emerge content.

What appeals to the Mariners about Leake, more than anything, is his durability. After the season they’ve had on the pitching side, you can understand why Jerry Dipoto might’ve gotten spooked. Since 2012, Leake has started 180 games, and only seven pitchers have started more. Though Leake has been on the disabled list three times, he only had shoulder fatigue in 2010. Since then he’s been on the DL for a hamstring strain and shingles. Leake feels like one of those rubber-armed options, and those can be hard to identify and acquire.

Granted, pitchers are only durable until they are not. Bronson Arroyo was durable until he suddenly wasn’t. Jon Garland was durable until he suddenly wasn’t. You shouldn’t give baseball teams too much credit; pitching injuries are still very much a guessing game. Leake deserves bonus points for his track record, but that doesn’t make him safe. It just makes him *somewhat* safe, possibly. The following plot of Leake’s career sinker velocities hints that not all lights are necessarily green:

Pitcher health should never be taken for granted. The industry isn’t anywhere close to that point. The richest teams try to acquire pitchers with talent and durability. The rest of the teams more often have to make a choice. You can go for someone like Mike Leake, or you can go for someone like Charlie Morton or Brett Anderson. It’s impossible to know the results ahead of time. You always cross your fingers.

We should talk about Leake, the actual pitcher. He’s been healthy enough to remain on the mound. What, exactly, is on-the-mound Leake? He’s a No. 4 starter, who’s sometimes a No. 3 starter, and he’s been that guy for years. There’s really not much in the way of mystery, which you can see when you examine his expected wOBAs allowed, by way of Baseball Savant:

2015: .328 expected wOBA
2016: .326
2017: .327

Leake is a strike-thrower more than he’s a bat-misser, and he isn’t one of those strike-throwers who generates weak contact. He does generate ground-ball contact. In a sense, the grounders help him avoid home runs, but in another sense, the contact makes him home-run vulnerable. As should be obvious, there are pluses and minuses when it comes to any pitcher with Leake’s established statistics. One of his things is that he’s not so great at working deep. Since Leake debuted, he’s ranked in the 64th percentile among starters in effectiveness the first two times through the order. After that, he’s ranked in the 10th percentile. Leake wears down. Or, Leake gets figured out. Either one, or both. He’s not a guy you usually want still throwing in the sixth or the seventh.

So Leake has his quirks. What’s clear is that, even with everything, he still makes these Mariners better. Their rotation is bad enough that Leake might even be the No. 2. And Leake doesn’t turn 30 until November, and he’s under contract through 2020. So he’s a longer-term investment as well, given how little quality pitching the Mariners have in the upper levels of the system. Smyly will probably never throw a pitch in the uniform in the bigs. Iwakuma’s likely to leave. There’s Paxton, and whatever’s going to be left of Hernandez, and there’s Leake, and then there’s a whole jumble of unremarkable names. Erasmo Ramirez stands out, I guess. Then you’re choosing between names like Marco Gonzales and Ariel Miranda and so on. Because the Mariners are thin, Leake should help some. He’s not cheap, but this is probably around market price.

The Mariners are going to owe around $38 million, for three years plus the rest of this one. Last offseason, Morton signed for two years and $14 million, but he’s had lots of trouble staying healthy. Jason Hammel signed for two years and $16 million, but he’s in his mid-30s. Ivan Nova makes for a pretty useful comp. Nova and Leake have similar profiles, and similar ages. Nova signed for three years and $26 million, but he’d had somewhat recent elbow surgery. Leake gets more because of his health, and because of the potential bonus in the rest of this season.

In other words, you don’t have to work hard to justify the cost. A starter like Mike Leake would cost about this much as a free agent. The Cardinals, after all, initially gave him even more. It’s just, I don’t know, uninspiring. Do you ever want to be the team paying eight figures for Mike Leake? Do you want to be a team starting Mike Leake in the playoffs? Ideally, as an organization, you’d have pitching reinforcements available, such that you don’t need to spend this much on the back of the rotation. That way you could direct more resources toward the top of the roster. The Mariners don’t have the reinforcements, in part because of design, and in part because of poor luck. So now Leake’s around for a while, and there will be less money to spend elsewhere. Doesn’t make it a bad move. Just makes it a move made by a team in a bad situation. For the Mariners, I can’t imagine there’ll be an easy way out.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

It is worth noting that the Mariners gave away an actual prospect for one of the “jumble of unremarkable names” (Marco Gonzales) who didn’t upgrade their rotation just a few weeks ago (which everyone said at the time and lo and behold, he’s just as bad as everyone thought). And now they got an actual upgrade from the same team just by assuming the rest of Leake’s contract.

This is a very good move if you have ownership who is willing to sign off on the cash, but it makes the earlier move even more baffling.