Acquired RHP Mike Leake and $17 million from St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for IF-S Rayder Ascanio. [8/30]
If you’ve ever lived in the greater Seattle area, you’ll learn that though the weather is dismal during most of the year, the summers are glorious. The mornings tend to run bright and calm over Puget Sound, the days stretch long and languidly, and even the dusks are tranquil as the sun dips out past the Olympics and into the Pacific. It's the perfect place and the perfect time, and it’s only ever marred by the brutal emotional violence of Mariners baseball.
This year, the Mariners aficionados' poison of choice is pitching injuries. While the big-market Mets and Dodgers get perhaps an unfair share of the attention given to wounded wings, Seattle’s collection of pitching injuries—and the resulting patchwork rotation—rival any in the game. Offseason acquisition Drew Smyly has been more like Drew Frowny, undergoing Tommy John surgery and never pitching an MLB inning this season. The once-regal Felix Hernandez hasn’t been reliable, much less good. Hisashi Iwakuma, who caused even the Dodgers to balk at his injury risks, has been injured. And finally, budding ace James Paxton is currently out of commission with a strained pectoral muscle, ostensibly injured from carrying this damn rotation all season.
The result has been a staff “anchored” (read: also applicable in the “sink to the bottom of the ocean” sense) by Ariel Miranda and Yovani Gallardo, and filled out by a seeming cast of dozens of castoffs. And yet, they still contend. For that reason alone, the acquisition of Leake both matters, and is savvy. Leake is an almost-prototypical no. 3 or no. 4 starter in today’s game, possessed of great athleticism which has provided him with remarkable reliability. What you won’t find with this righty are those nasty breakers with insane movement that generate swings and misses; in fact, Leake ranks 52nd among 64 qualified starters this season in whiff rate.
He lives and dies on the strength of his sinker/cutter combo and command, allowing plenty of balls in play and limiting walks. After making his MLB debut in Cincinnati and skipping over the minor leagues entirely, Leake quickly established himself as able to deliver 30 starts per season, a valuable skill that will be extra valuable to a Mariners team that’s both shallow and without much talent. Over the last four seasons, Leake has posted a DRA- awfully close to the league-average 100 mark. Given his age and track record, one could expect that to continue and only diminish slightly in the next couple of years.
The Cardinals likely moved on from Leake due to his contract, which could be considered hefty. He signed a five-year, $80 million deal before the 2016 season, and when you have the depth and quality of minor-league pitchers that St. Louis has, you perhaps can afford to allocate your dollars more efficiently in other areas. But factoring in the cash being sent by the Cardinals, the Mariners will effectively pay Leake just $36 million over the next three years and change, including the cost of the buyout on his 2021 mutual option. At approximately $11 million per season, Leake’s contract becomes completely reasonable, and probably a little bit less than what a similar pitcher could command on the free agent market.
The idea is that Leake can be a set-it-and-forget-it slot in the team’s rotation until the end of decade, providing solid performance for moderate cost and keeping the Mariners in games. But for this season, Leake is a substantial upgrade—perhaps a win or so over a pitcher like Andrew Albers—going into that late-season Wild Card push. For this Mariners team, average starting pitching performance is just something that they haven’t been seeing very often in recent weeks.
It’s possible that the acquisition of Leake, at the modest expense of borderline prospect with utility man upside and a not-inconsiderable sum of money, will be representative of the end of the Seattle summer. The team may be aging out of a contention window, and Leake will certainly be something of a drag on payroll going forward. Even this move, and the hole it fills, will not by itself carry this team to a much-needed Wild Card spot. My advice? Enjoy your long summer Sunday and forget about the coming gray days. Make the time you have in the sun count and hope for the best.