Mariners take a Leake

Associated Press (AP)

The Mariners currently rank 28th in the MLB in starting pitcher WAR, and so they have attempted to bolster their rotation by acquiring Mike Leake, cash, and international cash in return for SS Rayder Ascanio.

Leake is owed a $16M APY for the next three years. With the Cardinals kicking in cash, Mike Leake is essentially on a three-year, $36M deal with a $5M buyout in 2021. Leake waived his no-trade clause in order to come to Seattle.

With a 2017 WAR of +1.9 to date, Leake joins the Mariners as their second most productive starting pitcher, and it isn’t particularly close. Next in line is Ariel Miranda at +0.5 WAR.

After posting a 3.12 ERA in the first half, Leake has floundered, conceding a 6.90 ERA to batters since the All-Star break. One reason for this regression seems to be that Leake’s velocity on his sinker has been declining. Both Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs have his sinker’s velocity as the lowest it has been since 2012, and nearly an entire tick down from just last year. That’s problematic considering Leake throws his sinker almost 50% of the time.

Regardless, a stellar first half and pitiful second half combine to equal a fairly normal year for Leake. He now has seven consecutive seasons of at least 150 innings, and most of them have fallen under a 4.00 ERA. It’s reasonable to expect somewhere around 185 innings and a 4.00 ERA per season from Leake for the remainder of his contract. With Seattle’s current rotation, it’s hard to complain about that.

The going rate for middling, veteran starters is currently somewhere around $10M-$15M per year. Jeremy Hellickson, he of 9.9 WAR from 2010-2017, is on the books for $17M in 2017. Currently, one WAR is priced at around $8.5-9M, and so Leake will need to be worth around +4 WAR for the next three years. In the past seven seasons, Leake has averaged +1.89 WAR per season, so he would be hard pressed to not be worth the money.

The dip in velocity is concerning, but there are some reasons to be hopeful. First, Leake is getting more swings out of the zone than he has in many years. His swing percentage on pitches outside of the zone is up a full percentage point from his career average. Second, his outside-zone (O-Swing) contact and inside-zone (Z-Swing) contact percentages are both down around 2% from his career averages. Lastly, his swinging strike percentage (SwStr%) is the highest it’s been in his career.

As for the Rayder Ascanio, he’s a 21-year-old, 155-pound shortstop who has spent most of his time in 2017 in A+ ball. As a hitter, he is extremely light-hitting, but is an absolute wizard with his glove. While not an issue for many big league shortstops, it’s concerning that Ascanio is hitting a mere .656 OPS in A+ (21% below league average). He currently has an uphill battle to be a capable major league starter. John Sickels graded him a ‘C’ in February.

In short, the Cardinals used this as an opportunity to free up salary cap space. Seattle has made it even more clear that they aren’t tapping out anytime soon. Paired with the Segura extension, picking up a $12M annual contract through 2020 shows they are trying to win now. Fortunately they were able to do so with a 29-year-old proven veteran pitcher. Look for Mike Leake to get his first start as a Mariner sometime this weekend against Oakland.

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