Arkins: M’s Bold Move Underscores Desire To Win

For the second time in as many months, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto brokered a deal with the St. Louis Cardinals to help his club contend now and in the future.

This time, the organization snagged a veteran piece for their decimated rotation — Mike Leake. In late July, the Mariners acquired young starting pitcher Marco Gonzales from the Red Birds.

Needed Help

Leake has proven both durable and capable of eating innings during his eight-year career. Those attributes have been in short supply on a Mariners team that’s used 16 starting pitchers this season.

As noted yesterday by Prospect Insider, Seattle starting pitchers collectively ranked last for innings/start this month. The root cause to their woes?

A barrage of injuries sidelining 80-percent of the team’s projected Opening Day rotation — Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Drew Smyly.

Unfortunately, the current rotation — Gonzales, Ariel Miranda, Yovani Gallardo, Erasmo Ramirez, and Andrew Albers — has been unable deliver enough quality innings during the absence of Seattle’s best starters.

The Mariners hope the addition of Leake will help stabilize the rotation until they get help from the disabled list. Both Hernandez and Paxton could be back by mid-September.

If all goes well, Seattle’s starting rotation could be Paxton, Hernandez, Leake, Ramirez, and Miranda within three weeks. Gallardo and Albers would remain options, especially if Miranda were to hit club-imposed innings limit.

Reasonable Price

Another difference between the two deals is the payment Seattle surrendered to get their man. Last month, the team dealt highly touted prospect Tyler O’Neill.

Dealing O’Neill proved to be an unpopular move with a fan base who had seen the 22-year-old hit monster home runs in several videos. Adding to their disappointment, Gonzales’ poor performance since joining the big league club earlier this month.

To acquire Leake, the cost from a prospect perspective was extremely low — infielder Rayder Ascanio.

The switch-hitting middle infielder with good defensive skills signed as an international free agent in 2012. He posted a .217 batting average during stints with High-A Modesto and Low-A Clinton this season.

It’s worth noting, Ascanio didn’t appear in Jason A. Churchill’s most recent prospect rankings. Churchill reiterated his evaluation via Twitter today.

In addition to Leake, the Cardinals sent $750 thousand of international bonus pool money and an unannounced amount of cash to the Mariners to offset the 29-year-old’s salary.

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports St. Louis will chip in approximately 30-percent of the money owed to the newest Mariner.

Reasons For Skepticism

By making the deal prior to September 1, Leake would be eligible for the Mariners’ postseason roster, assuming they earned a wild card berth.

The issue at hand is whether the Arizona State University alum can help Seattle reach the postseason for the first time since 2001.

After enjoying a superb first half, the 29-year-old’s numbers have spiraled downward at an alarming rate.

Certainly, seeing Leake’s numbers since the all-star break won’t excite Seattle baseball fans. They’ve seen plenty of poor pitching from the current rotation.

That said, I’m not particularly concerned with the former Sun Devil unless there’s an underlying physical issue; there are no indications of that being the case.

Reasons For Optimism

Leake is a pitch-to-contact type, who’s very reliant on inducing grounders. He ranks fourth among qualified MLB starters with a 54.5-percent ground ball rate this season. Despite his recent struggles, he remains in the top-15 in that category since mid-July.

Still, I understand the skepticism. The numbers posted in the preceding table are real and his hard-contact rate is up nearly nine points to 38.6-percent in the second half.

On the other hand, it’s possible Leake is merely regressing to the mean.

When you look at the right-hander’s current 2017 stat line side-by-side with career average calculated for a 162-game schedule, there are more similarities than differences.

Although Leake’s ERA, FIP, and WHIP have all ticked upward, they’re not considerably higher than what he’s been averaging over the past eight seasons. Perhaps, falling backwards was inevitable after performing well above career norms during the first three months of the season.

Despite struggling recently, Leake represents a significant upgrade to Seattle’s rotation. If the former first round pick of the Cincinnati Reds can pitch near his career norms, he’ll help the Mariners contend late into September — assuming Hernandez and Paxton return by mid-month.

Leake most likely will replace Gonzales in the rotation. His last start was on August 26 against the Tampa Bay Rays. That means he could start as early as this coming Friday, if manager Scott Servais chooses.

About The Money

There is a significant level of risk with this deal.

Even with the cash considerations from the Cardinals, the Mariners are on the hook for approximately $38 million for Leake services over the next three years. In the eyes of some, that’s a big commitment to a struggling starter with an 8.88 ERA this month.

Those misgivings are understandable, but I don’t share the same concern.

With or without money from St. Louis, the deal makes sense from a financial standpoint. The cost of pitching isn’t going to go down in the future and the Mariners are getting a 29-year-old pitcher with at least three years of control remaining.

By surrendering virtually no value in the deal, the trade is reminiscent to inking a veteran free agent to a three-year deal with an option for one extra season.

As Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times notes, Dipoto said as much. “If Mike Leake is a 30-year-old free agent and we were able to achieve this deal with him. We would feel comfortable signing him to that. It was a real consideration and a strong factor in what led us to doing this deal.”

Finally

Considering his age, Leake represents a long-term replacement for Iwakuma; both share several similarities. They don’t strike out many hitters, avoid walks, and like to keep the ball on the ground. The biggest difference between the two righties; Leake is five years younger.

Perhaps, I’m wrong and today’s deal falls flat. Maybe, Felix and Paxton don’t return in time to help Leake. Even if those things happen and Seattle falls short, there’s a reason for fans to feel hopeful.

Dipoto’s bold move underscores the desire of the front office and ownership group to continue competing despite so many setbacks this season. This proves the organization is no longer “the same old Mariners.”

That’s a good thing going forward.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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