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The Mike Leake Trade, Revisited

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We’ve all had time to live with the Mike Leake deal for a few weeks. What do we make of it now?

Tampa Bay Rays v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

It’s been a little less than four weeks since the Cardinals traded Mike Leake to the Seattle Mariners, and in those four weeks there has been a fair bit of discussion on the matter.

Actually, that’s not quite true; I should say there was a fair bit of discussion for about a week or a week and a half, then much more occasional discussion for another week or so, and then just increasingly infrequent mentions here and there, mostly from someone worried about the innings load the 2018 Cardinal rotation is going to have to produce. Which, if we really think about it, is probably just about right. The trade of Mike Leake is not exactly a huge, controversial part of the season; rather, Leake has basically already folded into easy oblivion. The boredom brought by watching him pitch is no match for how difficult it is to hold a discussion in the front of one’s mind regarding Leake’s time with the Cardinals. It is easy, really, to simply forget he was ever a Redbird already.

And, of course, it is also further true that a week or two of discussion, followed by progressively less as time goes on, is really just about all that any topic specifically warrants, if we’re being reasonable. There are very few baseball stories that require being brought up again and again over time, and certainly not the sudden trade of a fourth starter in late August.

All that being said, I personally found the trade of Mike Leake to be much more interesting than the average move. His Cardinal career I really didn’t care much about, but his method of departure is one worth examining a bit, I think.

A funny thing actually happened to me on the day Leake was dealt. It was, of course, a Wednesday, the universe once again conspiring to push a Redbird move onto my day to write, thus rendering whatever I had worked on for the day at least partially irrelevant. The trade went down in late morning, after I had already posted my article for the day, and once the news broke I went into the story editor to write up a basic news post about the deal. This was probably only about half an hour, maybe 45 minutes after the initial breaking of the story. As I was typing out a very basic little post about the facts of the trade, I checked the editorial queue to make sure no one else had already hit the story, only to see Craig had just posted a couple minutes before. So there I was, with parts of a post written I could still use, parts that were useless, and no real reason to write what I had been planning. I was just about to discard the post entirely, when an interesting detail emerged regarding the various pieces going back and forth between the Cardinals and Seattle. The bit about international pool money caught my eye, and at that moment the full details of the deal hadn’t come out. So I changed course, wrote a short piece about how the Cards had used 750K worth of imaginary money to pay the freight for getting Leake out of town, and posted it.

Well, within about two hours the rest of the details on the trade came out, with the Cardinals paying way more of Leake’s salary than we realised at first, and we eventually just pulled the post I had written, since it no longer applied. Things like that are why I usually try to wait a bit before writing about a move or signing or whatever; getting the full details and actually having time to digest and think about them makes for much better content. In the case of the Leake trade, though, I had an immediate thought, typed it up in a hurry, and then saw it become completely obsolete before the afternoon was over because the facts weren’t what I believed initially. You win some, you lose some. The stakes on a baseball blog are pretty low, so I don’t feel too very awful about it.

In the time since the trade, though, the Mike Leake deal has continued to be interesting to me, if only because it represents such a radical departure philosophically for the Cardinals. This franchise, by and large, simply does not trade assets away for nothing. And even if you thought Mike Leake was not much of an asset, he was still a useful pitcher who less than two years ago commanded a five year, $80 million free agent contract.

In fact, there’s only one other time I can really remember the Cardinals seemingly souring on a player this quickly and just sending him away for pretty much nothing within, say, the last fifteen years. Sure, there have been Ty Wiggington type mistakes, but there we’re talking about a low-stakes utility pickup. Wiggington comes in to play three or four positions, stinks up the joint, and is let go quickly, but he was also a $10 million total bet on a guy who was at best going to pull 350 at-bats a year playing all over the infield. That’s a pretty small time bet, and no big deal if it fails.

No, the only real parallel I can think of to Mike Leake, where a major free agent was brought in to play a key role on the team, only to be let go very soon, for very little, was Tino Martinez. Martinez was signed by the Cardinals prior to the 2002 season, coming off a run with the New York Yankees which included an MVP runner-up finish in 1997, as he clubbed his way to a career-best in homers (44), isolated slugging (.281), and wRC+ (141), while posting an exact 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio. A home run outlier season in the late 90s is probably always going to look a little suspicious, but Tino was a legitimately excellent hitter from about ‘95 to ‘98, which also coincided with his late 20s, aka the traditional peak years for a hitter.

The problem with Martinez in terms of his Cardinal career is that they signed him for his age 34 season, probably having had their perception of the aging curve warped by a handful of really weird late-career surges I think we all remember, and Tino did not magically stay awesome until his 40th birthday. He was fine, posting slightly above league average offensive numbers in both 2002 and ‘03, but his power was way down from where it had been with the Yankees (and even earlier in Seattle), and he didn’t do himself any favours in the public eye by being fairly open about not liking St. Louis nearly as much as he had New York. To be fair, the relationship was probably doomed from the get-go, as Tino had the poor fortune of being the guy who took over first base from Mark McGwire, who was still casting a Paul Bunyanesque shadow over the position. You never want to be the guy who follows the guy; better to be the guy who follows the guy who had to follow the guy.

In the 2003-2004 offseason, the Cardinals sent Tino to Tampa Bay in exchange for...nothing. Well, actually, they received Evan Rust and someone named John-Paul Davis (as a PTBNL), in the deal, but I’ve never heard of either of those guys, and neither have you. If you think you have, you’re wrong. Or you’re lying, and shame on you.

The Cardinals didn’t make as long a commitment to Tino as they did to Mike Leake, but contracts in the early 2000s also weren’t as long in general as they are now, outside of megastars. The guy came in, was pretty meh as a player, and the Cards decided it was time to move on, with no concern whatsoever for what they could get in return. It didn’t hurt they had decided to move a 23 year old Albert Pujols from left field to first base, making Martinez utterly expendable.

The Mike Leake situation feels similar to that, but an even more extreme version. The Cardinals signed him for five years, and less than two seasons into the deal decided they were ready to move on. They have multiple pitchers they’re ready to have move into the rotation in the near future, the most prominent of whom is Jack Flaherty, who looks promising but undercooked at this point. And they didn’t just get nothing back from Seattle in return for Leake; they paid the Mariners a considerable sum to take him.

Which all, honestly, seems really weird. We should probably get it out of the way right now that Leake has made four starts since going to Seattle and has been outstanding, with a 2.13 ERA and 22:2 K:BB ratio in 25.1 innings. He also hasn’t allowed a home run. Now, would he have reverted to early-season Leake had he stayed here with the Cardinals? Who knows. Really, though, it barely matters, because moving Mike Leake was not about 2017, and never was. It was always about 2018.

Here’s the thing: the Cardinals signed Mike Leake to a five year contract, but we really need to ask ourselves a question. The question is, what did the Cardinals need when they signed Mike Leake? They had missed out on David Price earlier in the offseason, and that was an attempt to sign the best free agent pitcher on the market, and the guy they really wanted. When that didn’t work out, they pivoted to Leake. But Leake was never meant as a direct replacement for Price. David Price was both a want and a need; Mike Leake was far more need than want.

So what did the Cardinals need? Simple; they needed innings. No more, and no less. They needed innings, in bulk, and that’s pretty much what Mike Leake was offering. He had made 30 or more starts in four straight seasons before signing with the Cardinals, and thrown 180 or more innings three of those four years. In the fourth year, he missed the 180 mark by a single inning. Four years, 124 starts, 777.2 innings pitched, and a 101 ERA+. You want innings, that’s a pretty good stat line to be looking at. They weren’t guaranteed to be excellent innings, but they were going to be good enough, most of the time. And there should be plenty of them.

So the Cards needed innings, and they signed Mike Leake, and he delivered innings, for the most part. He hit the 30 start mark again, in spite of missing time with shingles, and only missed the 180 innings thing by ten outs. His ERA+ was only 87, but he posted the best fielding-independent numbers of his career, and was especially hard hit by the Cardinals’ nightmarish defense of 2016. He brought innings, mostly pretty good ones, and isn’t that exactly what the Redbirds needed?

Well, yes. But then also, no.

The Cardinals needed innings, certainly. But even more specifically than that, the Cardinals needed innings in 2016. And 2017. They needed innings because while there was a wave of pitching prospects beginning to show on the horizon, none of those players were ready yet at the time Mike Leake was signed. Alex Reyes was close, but not quite there yet. He was expected to be a 2017 arrival, pushed that timeframe up slightly, and then got hurt. Which is, of course, the problem with all pitchers. They break.

Now, whether the Cardinals need innings in 2018 is a much tougher issue to parse out. They are likely losing Lance Lynn to free agency. Adam Wainwright is a complete question mark at this point. Carlos Martinez seems a lock to pencil in for 180-200+ innings, but Michael Wacha has the spectre of shoulder problems hanging over him. On the other hand, Luke Weaver, given health, looks like a lock for the rotation, and shouldn’t really be on any innings restrictions. Alex Reyes could be back around midseason for some role or another. As I said, Flaherty is a bit like an underdone quiche right now, but the ingredients are there for him to be very good. He threw ~135 innings in 2016, is closing in on 165 this year, and should be able to pitch without worrying about the workload next year. It’s fair to ask if he’ll be good or not, but he is striking out almost a batter per inning and clearly has the stuff to succeed. John Gant is an interesting arm to me, and has shown versatility between the ‘pen and starting. Dakota Hudson isn’t ready, but he’s not that far off, either. If you asked me straight up if the Cardinals need innings in 2018, I would answer maybe, but probably not. If you’re willing to live with some growing pains, anyway, that is.

So back to Mike Leake. The Cardinals really needed innings for two years — although admittedly, at the time of the signing they may have thought they needed him for more years — and got pretty much what they needed.

Quick question: anytime there’s a discussion of a potential free agent signing, there are always two hypothetical situations raised by the people discussing it. (I specifically mean in circles like this blog right here.) Can you name them? I’ll give you a moment.

Hmm. Simulating the passage of time in written form is hard. I could just put periods on several lines, I guess, but I don’t like the way that looks, necessarily. Oh, well. Hopefully reading this short paragraph has given you enough time to think of the two hypotheticals always brought up anytime a contract is proposed on the internet.

The two hypotheticals are as follows:

  1. Why not just front load the deal? That way you’re paying more for the years you actually want the player, instead of backloading it so the expensive years are also the bad ones?
  2. Why doesn’t team X just offer the player a short, extremely high AAV contract? Like, instead of seven for $140 when you know you don’t want the guy in his mid 30s, just offer him 3/$84 or something? That would have to be enticing, right?

You’ve heard these before, right? Of course you have. We all have. Most of us have argued in favour of one or the other, I would imagine. Both ideas run against economic sense, where money increases over time and so never pay the full cost today if you can amortize it over a longer period and pay the big costs later when you will have more to spend, but both make complete baseball sense, where you’d rather pay market value for a short-term asset and not be stuck with an aging, less-productive player down the road even if you get a slightly better deal now. Those two realities, the baseball world and the financial world, clash quite a bit.

The Jhonny Peralta contract was one of the very few true front-loaded contracts we’ve seen in baseball recently. The Cards signed Jhonny to a four year deal worth $52 million total, but structured it in such a way that he was making only $10 million in this, the final season of the contract. The idea, I’m sure, was to have an asset which became more financially attractive as it became less baseball attractive, and so maybe would retain some value on the market or even on the team toward the end of the deal. Unfortunately, injuries and age caught up to Jhonny faster than his contract fell, and he ended up with no real value this year. On the other hand, it probably hurts less to get nothing for $10 million than for $15 million, even if the surplus early should have paid for the shortfall late. That’s purely psychological, though.

I have a secret to tell you: I said there were two hypotheticals that always come up in regards to baseball contracts. I listed them, in fact. You can scroll back up and see them, even; I didn’t change them when you weren’t looking. Really, though, there aren’t two hypotheticals. There’s just one, and those two ideas are just different versions of it.

The basic idea is, “Why don’t we pay for what we want, and not for what we don’t?” In the one example, you have hey, why don’t we pay more for the good years, and less for the bad years? In the other, you have hey, why don’t we pay way more for the good years, and nothing at all for the bad years? The basic idea is the same.

Which, basically, is exactly what the Cardinals did with Mike Leake. They just maybe didn’t tell Mike Leake that.

The Cards signed Leake to a five year, $80 million contract. There was also a mutual option tacked on to the end, with a $5 million buyout. So five years, $85 million total guaranteed. The contract paid him 12, 15, 17, 16, and 15 million dollars over the course of the five years.

So the Cardinals paid Leake $12 million and most of $15 million; the $2.5 million they’re sending the M’s this year pretty much pays off what they still owed him, I believe. So let’s just say they paid him the full $27 million for two years, okay? In addition, the Cardinals sent an additional $15 million over the next three years. So they received most of two years’ worth of production for $42 million. Which, yeah, doesn’t really sound like a great deal.

Except....

If we go by the cost of a win on the open market over the last couple years, the dollars per WAR figure is in the neighbourhood of $10 million dollars. Which means that, for $42 million, you should only expect a little over 4 wins. Yes, that sounds insane to me too, and yes, that’s where we are in the game right now.

The Baseball-Reference version of WAR doesn’t think much of Mike Leake, especially in 2016, and I generally prefer the RA/9 version of WAR for pitchers. In Leake’s case, though, I’m so certain the defense killed him last year that I’m actually in favour of using the FIP-based model, which pegs his 2016 campaign at 2.5 WAR. That feels about right; an averageish pitcher who threw a solid number of innings, offering a little better value than league average. This year Leake is actually at 3.0 wins, which feels a little high considering how badly he was getting knocked around, but I’ll go with it still. Mike Leake over the past two years was worth around five wins to the Cardinals. He gave them innings, the innings were mostly pretty good, and then they decided to get out.

In doing so, they essentially turned that five year deal, the one that looks like pretty much every other contract in baseball, into one of those totally hypothetical, only-makes-sense-from-a-baseball-perspective contracts. Basically, the Cardinals signed Mike Leake to a two-year, $42 million contract, and got something close to their money’s worth. Even if they didn’t get exactly what they paid for, they got rid of all the years in Mike Leake’s age that begin with a ‘3’, avoiding the real downside risk of a pitcher who seems to always be right on the edge of his stuff falling that one notch that will prove catastrophic.

I’m not saying the plan for the Cardinals was always to sign Leake to one of those imaginary contracts where you pay the guy a super high AAV for a very short time; I’m sure when they signed him they thought it was important to have an innings eater hanging around for the next several years. But when the situation changed, and John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch decided they wanted to go in a different direction, with a potentially higher payoff, they converted that normal contract into something we usually only see in internet hypotheticals. Which is really fascinating, because it represents such a hard break from their usual way of doing things, and what feels like a real change of direction for the organisation.

At the very least, it feels ridiculous to me for anyone to claim the Cardinals were somehow being cheap in dealing Leake away. I’ve seen comments here and there that they moved him just to save money, further proof the organisation isn’t dedicated to anything but the bottom line. I suppose the fact this route does literally cost the club less money than keeping Leake around, even if they’re still paying him to play for someone else, could serve as support for that position. But this doesn’t feel like at all like a money-saving measure to me. This feels like a hard shift away from security at a reasonable cost toward a higher risk, higher reward strategy with some extra overhead for additions this offseason.

As for Leake himself, I actually do feel a little bad for him. He came here, he did his job mostly as expected, and ended up shipped out of town unceremoniously to fanfare from people who shifted a lot of their frustrations with the team as a whole onto his rather narrow shoulders. Still, he’s probably in a better situation now, having moved to an even more extreme pitcher’s park than Busch III, and going to a club with spring training in Arizona. That last bit might not sound like a big deal, even when you remember his father was paralysed a couple years ago after a fall and Leake was specifically trying to sign with the Diamondbacks to be close to home. How much does where a club plays spring training really matter? Well, considering pitchers and catchers report right around Valentine’s Day, and Opening Day is always right around the first of April, you’re talking about six weeks of time in Arizona, rather than Florida. That’s 10% of a year.

So Leake moves to a better situation, spending 10% more of the year where he really wanted to be, and keeps the same money he was getting anyway. It may feel like he got kind of a raw deal in some ways here, but don’t cry for him, Argentina. He’ll probably be fine.

The real question, I suppose, is whether the Cardinals will be fine. I know there are some of you who are very concerned that the Cards are going to need to find someone to eat innings (i.e. a Mike Leake type), for next season, and that’s a valid concern. All of this creative accounting and weird hypothetical contract work will be for naught if they find themselves without proper rotation coverage next year.

To that, I would say this: the Cardinals’ rotation of 2018 will look completely different from the one we saw most of 2017. Whether that’s due to a move for a front-end arm, or going all-in on the youth and risk of the system remains to be seen, but either way it will be different.

To me, that says the Cardinals are more serious now than they have been in a very long time about making changes to get moving back in the right direction. They’ve caught a lot of flak here and elsewhere for being too cautious, too risk-averse, too safe in recent years. The direction they’re going now is much, much less safe, I believe, and while that could potentially go wrong, I think there’s also a chance for much more to go right.

And a big part of taking on risk for a potentially higher ceiling on the payoff was moving Mike Leake for absolutely nothing, and essentially turning his contract into the stuff of discussion thread theoretical debates.

I happen to think that’s really interesting.