Let’s start with a caveat: the Mariners don’t need to trade Mike Leake.
The 31-year-old RHP was the only pitcher in the Mariners’ Major League camp to throw 180+ innings in the bigs last year (and the only one who has done so since 2015, for that matter). The rotation projects to be Marco Gonzales/Yusei Kikuchi/Leake/Wade LeBlanc/Félix Hernández, with Kikuchi joining young arms like Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson in working on innings restrictions. Running a veteran like Leake out there to sop up 6-7 innings come hell or high water is useful for everyone.
But the Mariners aren’t playing for much in 2019. The team won’t be terrible, but it’s just not up to snuff with the Astros/Red Sox/Yankees tier, nor do they get to play four teams determined to fit their head through their pants like Cleveland. If Tommy Milone throws those innings instead of Leake, Seattle’s record will be the worse for it, but their future could be a bit better. Dealing Leake wouldn’t deliver a huge haul, but at this point Seattle needs depth in their farm as much as they need high-end talent.
Seattle has reportedly tried to trade Leake this offseason, providing him with a few destinations to suss out where he would waive his no-trade-clause to be dealt.
As of last night, per sources, #Mariners had contacted Leake but not Segura about possible deal to #Padres. Both hold no-trade clauses. Possible, as reported, deal simply not close. Possible SEA working on separate Leake trade to SD. Leake also mulling other potential options.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 21, 2018
They also have to find a team who Leake would be a fit, and that pairing is elusive. A trade partner for Leake would need to be: A) A playoff contender in 2019; B) Have a weak enough rotation that Leake is a clear upgrade; and C) Have some room in the budget for money now and later.
By my reckoning, that narrows our list to the Twins, A’s, Angels, Brewers, Pirates, and Padres. The Angels and Pirates have each stated they are unwilling or unable to spend any more money, however. The Athletics, while pitching-impoverished, are famously spendthrift, while the Twins are in a similar position to the Mariners and seem unlikely to earn a waived NTC from the SoCal-bred/Arizona-residing Leake. That leaves us with two teams: Milwaukee and San Diego.
Since rumors of Leake trade talks emerged early this winter, the Brew Crew struck me as the best fit. Milwaukee was a surprising contender last year, and has invested once more in free agency, returning Mike Moustakas while adding Yasmani Grandal and Alex Claudio. But their rotation, like last year, remains a glaring red flag.
The ZiPS projection above includes two guys coming off/still dealing with shoulder injuries (Zach Davies & Jimmy Nelson), two veterans who drastically outperformed their peripherals (Jhoulys Chacin & Chase Anderson), and three guys with fewer than 20 total starts between them (Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, & Freddy Peralta). This is not a disastrous rotation, but one that could easily break bad and overtax their bullpen.
Making Leake more appealing to both Milwaukee and San Diego is his prowess at the plate. Like all pitchers not named Ohtani, Leake is an awful MLB hitter. He has a 35 wRC+ for his career, but that is the 7th-best wRC+ of any pitcher (min. 200 PAs) since 2010. League-average pitcher wRC+ in 2018 was a staggering -25 wRC+, meaning Leake could theoretically offer the difference between 2018 Nelson Cruz and 2018 Kyle Seager at the plate.
But if the Brewers have a fit, the Padres have a need. The new employers of Manny Machado boast what is likely the league’s strongest farm system, but their pitching staff has yet to produce.
San Diego has, suddenly, one of the more appealing position player groups in the league and a bunch of question marks in the rotation. Last year, Clayton Richard paced them in both starts (27) and innings (158.2). He’s departed for Toronto, as has Tyson Ross for Detroit, leaving talented but untested Joey Lucchesi as the club ace. The rest of the rotation falls into two camps. There are the unproven 24-26 year-olds with a taste of MLB: Robbie Erlin, Eric Lauer, Brett Kennedy, Jacob Nix, and Dinelson Lamet, and then the talented 21-23 year-olds who’ve shredded the minors but haven’t seen/surmounted AAA: Chris Paddack & Logan Allen. Leake is a steady option that would lead San Diego in innings pitched and grant them significant flexibility to work their prospects in at the pace at which they’re ready.
For Leake’s part, it seems likely he’d waive his NTC to head home. Born in San Diego and raised nearby in Fallbrook/Valley Center, Leake now resides in Arizona, near where he attended college at Arizona State University. While the Mariners were his favorite team growing up, it seems fair to surmise that if Leake would accept a deal anywhere, it’d be to the Friars. Moreover, Leake’s family, including his tragically paralyzed father, live in Arizona, where Leake has previously sought to sign, and an NL West post would offer him extra time in Phoenix.
The prospect return for Seattle wouldn’t be massive, but with 2/$22 million left on his deal and a $5 million buyout (or $18 million option) in 2021 his contract is easily fair for his production. FanGraphs’ Depth Charts project Leake for 1.5 fWAR this year - a modest decline for a pitcher coming off three years of 2.5, 3.1, and 2.3 fWAR. Pegging Leake for something around 2.0 fWAR makes his acquisition worthy of a lower-level prospect or two, and that grows if Seattle will eat some of the money.
A common practice is for teams to provide coverage for buyouts, and for the sake of maintaining the hegemony of round numbers let’s say the M’s kick in $7 million to bring Leake’s cost down to 2/$20 million (or 3/$33, if the Padres accept his option). That will not bring the Padres to part with one of their top prospects, but that’s all right - San Diego placed 13 players on FanGraphs’ Top-132, and double-digits on nearly every other major publication’s list. Even if Seattle looks at the 45 or 40+ FV sections of their farm, there will be depth options that can fill out the Mariners’ top-heavy prospect list. A few names who would fit well include...
RHP Pedro Avila - 22
A 5’11 righty with an Altavilla-like build and a 91-94 mph fastball, sharp curve, and good change, command has held Avila back thus far. Still, his numbers are good, and having gone through the waves of good-not-great mid-20s pitchers ahead of him, there’s a brighter future in Seattle. The M’s haven’t shied away from shorter starters this offseason, and Avila would fit right in.
RHP Reggie Lawson - 21
Another High-A righty, Lawson has a more prototypical build at 6’4, 205, but the numbers are less impressive. Still, with a low-to-mid-90s fastball and a strong breaking ball, Lawson has building blocks for a pro career. Lawson needs time to refine his command and his changeup, and time the Mariners have to give him.
SS Tucupita Marcano - 19
The only positions with less depth throughout the organization than starting pitching are 3B and SS, and Seattle would do well to bring back a player or two in one of those roles. Marcano is well-regarded defensively, with a stellar feel for contact early in his career and a knack for eluding strikeouts. He shares his name with his talented father, and has drawn strong reviews on his maturity and makeup as well.
SS Gabriel Arias - 19
Arias shares a similar profile to Marcano, although his $1.9 million signing bonus makes the scrutiny he receives higher. The bat has yet to follow, but as an 18-year-old in full season ball with Low-A Fort Wayne it’s not disqualifying to struggle a bit. Arias would fit in the West Virginia infield well, with plenty of time to grow.
3B Hudson Potts - 20
We’re officially in the “rich for our blood” category here, but Potts could be far more moveable now that the Padres have Machado mann(y)ing the hot corner for the next decade. Potts is a risky target, with a lot of swing-and-miss and regressing defense coming with his increased bulk and significant power spike. The Mariners’ future at third is currently skinny Kyle Seager and a still-struggling-to-hit Joe Rizzo, however, so if there’s a shot at Potts, it’s worth Leake easily.
Literally any of the pitchers in A+ or AA
It’s difficult to overstate how much plausible depth the Padres have right now. I could put SS/2B Xavier Edwards on this list too, though he may be unattainable at Leake’s price. But most of all, Seattle needs plausible starting pitching depth, as the system dealt from those ranks most of all during its efforts to compete from 2014-2018.
Behind Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson, and Justin Dunn, there is yet-to-pitch Logan Gilbert, Tommy John’d Sam Carlson, and a swath of hurlers who’ve yet to make a significant impression on scouts. Filling in that depth with an arm or two is what Leake could return to Seattle. It may not move the needle dramatically, it’s a worthwhile move if the Padres, and Leake, will take it.
Let’s send him home.