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Should the Cardinals bring back Dominic Leone?

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The reliever is borderline to be tendered a contract.

MLB: SEP 04 Giants at Cardinals Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tomorrow, the Cardinals must submit their 40 man roster. The 40 man will mostly remain the same as it was on September 30th. The exceptions are players whose six years of service with the Cardinals ran out and entered free agency. They need to add Rule 5 eligible players by tomorrow, or they will be exposed to the Rule 5 draft. Right now, the 40 man roster is at 38 players.

There is, to my eye, really one guy who is danger of being removed from the 40 man roster: Dominic Leone. Leone is arbitration eligible and is set to make a grand total of $1.6 million. Although - and this is coming from someone who doesn’t really know how this works - I suspect the Cardinals could probably work out a deal for less under the guise of “We won’t release you.” His salary this year was $1.26 million though, so that’s probably the floor here.

Forget about the money though. The money is nothing. Not to you or me, of course. But the Cardinals are not changing anything based off a $1.6 million salary. That is peanuts to an MLB team. So any discussion of whether or not to bring back Leone can just ignore money completely, it is so little of a factor.

What is a bigger factor to me, besides his performance, is the fact that he has no MLB options remaining. The Cardinals used his last option in 2019. He would be stuck on the MLB roster for the entire season, or at least until the Cardinals were forced to DFA or release him. It depends on how he’s pitching at the time, but I think if he was pitching to his 2019 levels, even though it wasn’t great, he’d be claimed on waivers by some team desperate for bullpen help.

Regarding his performance, Leone has a spotty track record. In other words, he’s an MLB reliever. He burst onto the scene in 2014 as a 22-year-old and pitched fantastic. He was helped by playing in the friendly confines of Safeco Field, but he had a 25.7 K% and a 54.7 GB%. I’m not sure how he got groundballs at that high of a rate, but he hasn’t even come close to that since.

It is not totally clear what happened in 2015, but he was... very bad. Splitting his time between AAA and MLB, he walked more than he struck out at the major league level. It may have been an injury, but it’s worth pointing out he wasn’t actually put on the injured list until August 15th. But his stats were hiding an injury bad. He got traded midseason to the Diamondbacks, who immediately sent him to AA, where he was good, but what a fall from grace.

He played half of 2016 in AAA and the other half in the MLB. His AAA stats were alright, but his MLB stats remained bad. He struck out just 17.6% of batters and wast tattooed most of the time. Thanks to a high HR/FB%, his FIP was 6.26, which pretty closely matched his ERA. The Diamondbacks gave up hope on Leone and tried to sneak him through waivers before the November 20th deadline.

The Blue Jays however claimed him and what a fruitful claim that turned out to be. He was optioned to the minors, but was called up twice in the next 10 days. He was sent back down on May 30th, but called up a week later. So since he kept getting called up within 20 days, he never had his third option burned. He struck out more and walked less than his fantastic rookie season, en route to a 1.5 fWAR season.

And then his Cardinal tenure. In 2018, it looked like we got shades of his 2017, but he ended up hurt for most of the year. And we didn’t really get his 2018 thanks to some bad luck with homers before the injury and a low LOB% after the injury. And then last year, he had truly bad stats, but did still struck out 25% of batters.

The interesting thing about his 2019, to me, is that he gave up 12 of his 25 earned runs in 2 appearances. He was absolutely destroyed by two particularly bad appearances, both of which he gave up 6 earned runs. One of them I remember pretty well, as he had run out of steam about 5 batters before he was taken out, but had one out to go and a pretty spent bullpen. And he just never got that last out. If you want to look at the bright side, he gave up just 13 ER in 39.1 IP outside of those two appearances, which is a 2.97 ERA. And both appearances were already blowouts. Combined, the leverage index for both appearances .03 and his WPA was -0.1. So games were already decided if one wants to look at it that way.

On the other hand, while removing those two games improves his advanced stats, it’s not totally encouraging. His FIP is 4.79 and his xFIP is 4.55 in games where he didn’t give up six earned runs. You can’t just remove those games obviously, but there is an argument to be made that he would have been taken out of those games much sooner if the games weren’t already blowouts. Let’s use the Cubs game as an example: he allowed a leadoff double then got two outs. Then double, double, walk, walk, home run. I don’t know where he gets removed in that sequence, but it’s probably before the two walks and definitely before the home run if the game is important.

I wish I could point you to Statcast numbers that point to improvement, but I don’t have that for you. They aren’t good obviously. He allowed a 40% hard hit rate and 93.2 exit velocity in the blowout against Cincy and 60% hard hit rate and 94.8 exit velocity against Chicago. That’s only 10 combined batters hitting the ball into play though. His season numbers were 38% hard hit and 89.2 exit velocity. But the Statcast numbers aren’t painting a rosy picture either.

This is a case where I actually think the randomness of relievers works for Leone more than against him oddly enough. I certainly have more hope for him than I do for Brett Cecil. And not everyone is into xFIP, but he had a better xFIP than another pitcher with no options: Tyler Webb. Maybe they can see if he does well in spring training and if he sucks, let someone else claim him or he goes to Memphis and you hope he figures something out. Either way, the opportunity cost is he takes a spot from someone else on the 40 man.

There are 38 players and two realistic candidates to get added: Elehuris Montero and Jake Woodford (neither of which I’m all that high on to be honest). And aside from Leone, there’s Rangel Ravelo, who is also out of options and I can’t really imagine making the team out of spring training. There’s Cecil. Adolis Garcia. There’s other guys you can cut if you’re worried about the 40 man.

And most importantly, Leone is a part of the Kent Bottenfield chain and we just can’t break that. Do I want Leone to stay on the team because I want to keep the chain going more than I actually want Leone? Maybe. But I also think there’s a decent case to be made for him outside of that. You decide.