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The aftermath of the Mike Leake trade

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The team’s likely path to upgrading itself has changed.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Today will probably be a slower day than usual, as many of us are off spending time with family and friends, and hopefully having a fun and safe Labor Day Weekend. However, some of us are still thinking about the Cardinals latest deal, essentially a salary dump of Mike Leake to the Seattle Mariners. Just like when they signed Leake originally, I don’t have any huge take-away. Both were reasonable moves. There are some implications though, and that’s what we’ll discuss today.

In the 21 months since Mike Leake and the Cardinals agreed to a $80M/5 year deal, his contract never stopped being a point of contention. A sizable portion of the fan base has always disapproved of the deal. Those fans saw a consistently average pitcher, and shared the feeling that average players didn’t deserve contract terms that rich. They probably feel vindicated by this deal, and I don’t blame them for feeling that way.

However, there was a vocal minority that felt the deal was fine. Acceptable. Meh. I felt that way then, and I feel that way now. It was a sign of how much money there was in baseball. It was putting value on depth. Leake was average, yes. But average is better than almost every other team’s best 5th starter. Few and far between are rotations that wouldn’t noticeably benefit from 190 extra innings from an average starter.

The Cardinals might be one of those teams, but I’m not entirely convinced. However, everything comes at a price. What we do know is that the Mariners and Cardinals came to an agreement that he was worth $38M over the next three years. OK, there were other parts of the deal. The Cardinals sent the Mariners $750,000 of international pool space, and the Cards got fringe prospect Rayder Ascanio. Those two things essentially cancel out. This was the salary dump dressed up as a traded.

That $38M happens to be $17M less than what Leake is set to make over the life of his contract, and the Cards will eat that $17M. That’s partially cancelled out by the fact that Leake was worth his contract and then some up to this point. According to Fangraphs’ value tab, Mike Leake was worth $35.2M in his time as a Cardinal. In that time frame, the Cardinals paid him $24.5M, benefiting from $10.7M more value than they paid for. All together, the Cards lost a little more than $6M on the Mike Leake deal. Even less than Ty Wigginton-level money, at least when adjusted for inflation.

It seems like they were willing to do that because of the excess of arms currently present in the upper minors. Luke Weaver already made likely losing Lance Lynn an easier pill to swallow. What this move seems to do for me is indicate a lot of faith in Jack Flaherty, who was promoted in a corresponding move, and made his debut last night. Alex Reyes should be available sometime in 2018 as well, though it’s not clear when that will be.

It doesn’t exactly leave the Cardinals thin on rotation depth, but you wouldn’t want to subtract from it any further either. Which is problem, because it would have been nice to do so in order to get an upgrade somewhere else. A couple of weeks ago, I supported trading for Justin Upton. Despite a lot of outfield depth in the high minors, Upton would be one of the team’s best players, and his presence would allow the team to trade from that depth as part of a deal that brought the Cardinals an upgrade somewhere else.

On the pitching side, Mike Leake did something similar. In Leake, they had someone much better than the average fifth starter. There may not be much difference between him and Flaherty, but on average a rotation suffers two D.L. trips a year. Having Flaherty waiting in Memphis to start 2018 was fine, just like it was fine for Weaver to start 2017 there as well.

With Leake in the picture, Jack Flaherty, Alex Reyes, Dakota Hudson, Zac Gallen, and Sandy Alcantara were all fairly expendable. Two of them could have been dealt without all that much worry. Three if the return was an MLB starting pitcher.

It’s not all that bad though, because the Cardinals end up with $38M they didn’t have before. Hopefully this just means they’re just less likely to aggressively trade prospects, and more likely to aggressive spend money this winter. Sure, that $38M only represents 13% of what’s owed to Giancarlo Stanton through 2027. Everything helps though.

Come to think of it, this is just one reason I’ve come to see a Stanton acquisition in a more positive light. First and foremost is, you know, the fact that Stanton’s been on an absolute tear this year, running a career-low strikeout rate while maintaining his all-world ability to pulverize the ball when making contact.

The second reason is that the price of acquiring wins continues to rise. Combining these two makes Stanton’s contract an actual asset, worth giving up significant value in prospects for. No, it shouldn’t be a Chris Sale level, but it’s to the point where I think it would take Alex Reyes or Carson Kelly (along with other pieces) to get Stanton, and I for one am okay with that.

A third reason is that it’s a somewhat realistic move that would give the Cardinals the biggest upgrade possible. Largely because the projections are low on Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk (which has looked like a pretty reasonable take this season), right-field projects as the team’s biggest weakness on the position player side. We’re realistically talking about a 4-win upgrade here over a full-season.

Such a move would require a whole lot of money. Say what you want about the team’s willingness to spend money, but it’s definitely stronger than their willingness to trade prospects. Leake’s $38M is chump-change compared to the possibility of a Stanton deal, but it gets them a little closer to it being a realistic move. It would also represent a decent fraction of the money they would be looking to give Upton or Martinez in free agency.

Okay, they could afford any of those three even with Mike Leake’s deal on the books. No argument here. But the cold-hearted truth is that this is a business, and the team’s owners are used to a certain level of profitability. With Leake gone, getting a top-end talent just got a little bit easier, assuming they’re more happy with spending cash than prospects. Let’s hope that’s why they made this move.