Mariners Get Mike Leake + Some of Mike Leake’s Contract

marc w · August 30, 2017 at 8:28 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

The M’s are at the periphery of a playoff race, and faced perhaps the worst starting pitcher in the AL today. Their own starting pitcher re-took the “lead” for most HRs allowed, but thanks to the fact that they were facing a plainly not-MLB-quality opposing pitcher, they found themselves tied (despite the fact that their starter yielded *four* HRs). After yet another injury, the M’s gave the ball – in the late innings of a tie game – to Christian Bergman. The M’s need pitchers, and they pitchers capable of giving them decent innings that can give their overtaxed bullpen a break. Ideally, they’d find someone durable enough to make each start down the stretch. Today, the M’s accomplished those goals by trading for St. Louis starter Mike Leake. The cost in talent wasn’t huge; the M’s are sending glove-first SS Rayder Ascanio east. Instead, this is essentially a deal for taking on a large fraction of Mike Leake’s contract.

Mike Leake isn’t awful, and his contract wasn’t exactly a disaster. In two years for the Cardinals, Leake’s been average or above by fWAR, but a bit worse than that by RA9-based WAR. He had about $55 million left on a deal that runs through 2020, with a club option for 2021, and thus was set to earn an average of $17M plus over his next three seasons. Given the state of the game and the state of Mike Leake, that seems pretty fair, even if fans would prefer a contract of that size to go to players a bit more exciting than Leake. Leake’s struggled of late, but fundamentally, the reason the Cards sought salary relief here goes back to 2014.

In 2012, the Cards picked a high-floor pitcher in the first round of the MLB draft. Michael Wacha would make his debut in 2013, and he’s still a fixture in their rotation. The next year, the Cards took Gonzaga pitcher Marco Gonzales in the first round – another high-floor guy who pitched well for them a bit, then struggled with injuries, and then moved to Seattle in a deal you may have heard of. In 2014, though, the Cards had two first round picks and went for pitching with both of them. With the first, they took another college-trained, high-floor guy in Florida State’s Luke Weaver. With the second (technically in the competitiveness balance picks), they went with hard-throwing high schooler Jack Flaherty. Weaver’s torn through the minors striking out far more than the maximum allowable to retain “high floor” status; he made his MLB debut last year, and has been excellent in a handful of starts in the past few weeks. Weaver went 10-2 with a 2.55 ERA in AAA this year, and he’s 3-1 with 36 Ks in 29 IP for the Cardinals. There is nothing for him to do in the minors anymore. And he’s not alone. Flaherty, still just 21 years old, was 7-2 with an ERA under 2 in AA this year, so he moved up to AAA and was 7-2 with an ERA of 2.74. Some HRs pushed his FIP higher, but Flaherty’s got top-100 prospect pedigree and a plus fastball, and thus the Cards can dream on him. With the trade of Leake, the Cards have called up Flaherty to take his place in the rotation.

The Cardinals had no need to be tied to a fairly large contract for an average-ish pitcher, not with youngsters on the way up and not with Lance Lynn hitting free agency at the end of the year. The M’s, meanwhile, were perhaps the team most in need of a competent – not great, not even good, just competent – starting pitcher (with the possible exception of the Orioles, who continue to win despite a poor rotation). From a high level, the deal makes a lot of sense. Of course, even with pitching at a premium, no one would take on the entirety of Leake’s remaining contract. Instead, the Cards will send some cash with Leake, turning that $55 M in guaranteed money into something more like $36 M. Jerry Dipoto told the TNT’s Bob Dutton that they asked themselves, “If Mike Leake is a 30-year-old free agent (in the coming offseason), and we were able to achieve this deal with him, we would be comfortable signing him to that contract?” At 3 years and ~$12 M per year, they obviously thought so, and it’s hard to argue with them. This commitment is roughly the same amount they gave Hisashi Iwakuma this year, and with ‘Kuma unlikely to return, they could use a league-average pitcher to replace him. On a per-year basis, this is a bit more than they’re giving Yovani Gallardo this year, and Leake’s projected to be significantly better.

So this is a great deal, right? I completely understand it, but there’s one big warning sign here. In the past few months, Leake’s sinker – his primary fastball – has been noticeably slower. That’s coincided with a run of bad outings and a collapse of his strikeout rate. As a ground-ball guy, Leake’s never been about Ks, but as you might expect, his K rate and runs allowed are correlated. Moving to the AL would seem to push his K rate even lower; nearly 1/5th of his career strikeouts have come against opposing pitchers, and it’s more than 20% this season. As a ground ball guy, though, he may be able to keep the ball in the park, something the M’s legion of fly-ballers haven’t been able to do. If the M’s think this velo drop is just a blip, or something that could be remedied with an extra day of rest, then I get it. But if Leake’s durability is breaking down, then the M’s are on the hook for 3+ years of Leake’s decline phase.

That velo drop comes at an inopportune time, as the M’s still fancy their chances to get the 2nd wildcard. Unfortunately, Leake’s been much better in the first half over his career:

And more troubling, not all opponents are equally adept at hitting sinking fastballs – Leake’s bread and butter pitch. The best two teams in baseball at hitting sinkers/two-seamers? Houston and Texas, two teams who’ll play the M’s 13 times next month. Jeff’s recap notes that his expected wOBA has been nearly identical in 2015, 2016, and 2017 – right around .327 each year. But since July 1, it’s risen to .371, and now he won’t get to face pitchers anymore.

His change-up’s velocity is down even more than his sinker’s, and that may account for his vanishingly low K rate against lefties this year. He’s never really had big platoon splits before, so it’s hard to know what to make of that. He’s getting more sink on his pitches with the Cardinals than he did with the Reds, but that seems to be the result of a slight lowering of his release point. He throws a slider *and* a cutter, along with a curveball he uses sparingly. At just 30 years old, there’s a scenario where he ages gracefully and gives the M’s 2-3 WAR each year of the deal and helps stabilize a rotation that could desperately use it. As a pitcher, there’s also a scenario where he velo drop continues and he washes out due to injury.

Let’s be clear: the M’s have the money to take on a good chunk of Leake’s contract. I’ve said for a while that their commitment to Robinson Cano is no reason they can’t sign other players, something they’ve demonstrated by extending Jean Segura and now acquiring Leake. Because Gallardo/Iwakuma drop off the payroll next year, and because they likely won’t pay Drew Smyly either, they still have room to add, even apart from their large commitments to Cano, Felix, Seager, Cruz, and Leake. That’s good, as they’ve obviously got a number of holes to fill, but I think it’s clear that, given the state of the baseball business, the M’s are not hamstrung by these contracts. Once they got a decent chunk of money from St. Louis (and the Cards even kicked in $750,000 of international bonus pool money), the finances of the deal make sense. The key is Leake’s health and his transition to the AL. My guess is that this move doesn’t really change the math on the 2017 playoff race, and we’ll need to evaluate it after 2018.


7 Responses to “Mariners Get Mike Leake + Some of Mike Leake’s Contract”

  1. mksh21 on August 30th, 2017 9:22 pm

    Welp with Felix, Paxton, Kuma AND Smyly going down. Basically the entire rotation and still somehow hovering around I’ll take it.

  2. don52656 on August 31st, 2017 12:16 am

    I guess you can rationalize the deal and you’ve made a good argument for it. My problem is that having Leake doesn’t appear to really solve the long-term problem….this team has almost no quality pitching in the entire organization. I mean, Neidert’s had a pretty good season, but what is his upside? Felix sure looks like he’s well past his peak, Paxton is great but only good for what, 150 innings if we’re lucky? Leake is what, a 4th starter in the AL, a 5th? It would be nice to spend $12 million per year for someone with a little more upside than a #4 or 5. It seems as if that’s what the Mariner’s strategy is these days, to load up on a ton of mediocrity and hope you have enough to fill out the rotation. You can’t win a World Series with mediocrity.

  3. bookbook on August 31st, 2017 10:16 am

    It’s not quite so bleak. Erasmo Ramirez may be a cromulent #4, and I still believe Andrew Moore can figure out how to hold down a backend rotation spot. The M’s will need one big pitching acquisition if they intend to compete seriously next year. Meanwhile, Leake (and Erasmo and Miranda) do help solidify the floor a bit.

  4. groundzero55 on August 31st, 2017 12:16 pm

    A rotation with a 2-5 of Erasmo, Moore, Leake and Miranda is the rotation of a 2nd wild card team, not a World Series caliber team. That’s assuming Paxton can stay healthy, and where does Felix fit in? I think next year’s rotation is Pax, Felix, Leake, Erasmo and a free agent, with Moore and Gonzales in Tacoma and Miranda in long relief, if he doesn’t end up traded. That free agent, however, needs to be at least a #3 type if not better. The aforementioned Lance Lynn? Who knows, but to show a marked improvement they need to perform better than current-era Felix.

  5. LongDistance on August 31st, 2017 12:17 pm


  6. marc w on August 31st, 2017 4:15 pm

    Don –

    I’ll agree with you that Leake doesn’t *solve* the long-term problem, but even a #4 capable of making 30 starts is a huge help for this club. If he’s not terrible, then the deal’s fair for all sides. If he is, eh, keep looking. This team’s problems are big/complex enough that an overpay is the least of their worries.

    I’m with bookbook that the rotation may be closer to league average-ish than it would appear, especially if they don’t need to run through 15 starters next year. Leake should help there, though it’s highly unlikely that he’s any kind of impact pitcher in the AL. And yes, that’s a 2nd wildcard kind of rotation, and not a world series one. The M’s decided that they couldn’t rebuild to get a World Series type team, and they’ve traded everything that wasn’t nailed down, so it doesn’t appear that they want to develop one. In that environment, you can either give fringe contention a shot in 2018 (Cruz’s last year here), or you can just bank the profits of a club with low payroll. Given *those* choices, I guess I go for the former, but I agree it’s frustrating that there’s no realistic path to Astros/Indians/Cubs/Dodgers/Nationals-level excellence.

  7. Sportszilla on September 1st, 2017 2:10 pm

    I’m curious as to what chances we (and the M’s, more importantly) give themselves to get Shohei Otani. Obviously every team in baseball will at least look, and there are other teams that are appealing, but given the current MLB rules (and the extra international money the M’s just picked up) they might actually stand a chance at getting perhaps the only true superstar player they’ll get close to in the next few years.

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