MILWAUKEE — The St. Louis Cardinals, though hanging onto some hope of contending this year, got a start on next year Wednesday when they traded struggling starting pitcher Mike Leake, cash considerations and $750,000 of international signing-cap space to the Seattle Mariners for minor league infielder Rayder Ascanio.
Leake, 29, is owed $55 million on the five-year, $80-million free agent contract he signed with the Cardinals before the 2016 season and the Cardinals are paying some $17 million of that, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. Leake had to waive the no-trade clause in his contract.
General manager John Mozeliak, in a conference call with reporters, said the deal likely was “a surprise move. But as we were looking at where we wanted our organization to go, we have two realities. One is that we have a lot of young pitching coming and we felt like for us to start our offseason now made more sense than trying to wait. We felt the importance to start this younger track of pitching moving forward, beginning today.
“The other component of this as we talk about our offseason is our outfield depth. At some point, we’ll have to cross that bridge as well. But, as we look to continue to compete in 2017, also allowing us to focus on a little bit on our future, that was what today was about.
“I still think we expect to compete. We’re just going to do it with a different name and a different face.”
Mozeliak didn’t say which young pitcher would make Leake’s scheduled start Friday in San Francisco although the most likely choice seems to be right-hander Jack Flaherty, the ace of the Memphis staff.
Mozeliak mentioned the names of Flaherty, right-hander Dakota Hudson, right-hander Sandy Alcantara and right-hander Luke Weaver, who won Tuesday’s game, as the most immediate wave of the future. This is in addition to Alex Reyes, who is progressing well after recovering from Tommy John and who is expected to part of next year’s rotation, Mozeliak said.
Manager Mike Matheny said he likened the trade of Leake to the loss of closer Trevor Rosenthal to elbow surgery. “It can be a great opportunity ... to try to plug in some pitchers and give them an opportunity to jump in here and help us win,” said Mozeliak.
Ascanio, a 21-one-year-old Venezuelan, was signed by the Mariners as an international free agent in 2012. In 425 games at the minor league level, he's hit .240/.320/.329.
“He’s a defensive specialist that we feel has some upside as a switch hitter,” Mozeliak said. “Sometimes in this business, you want to take some chances on someone who’s younger and we feel he has some upside. We had a lot of favorable reports on him.”
The deal was attractive to Leake because the Mariners conduct their spring training in Arizona. Leake’s family resides in the Phoenix area.
After a strong 5-2 start this season, Leake lost 10 of his last 12 decisions. He leaves with a 7-12 record and a 4.21 ERA for 2017 and overall with the Cardinals, Leake was 16-24 with a 4.46 ERA.
The former Cincinnati Reds starter had grim numbers against NL Central opponents during his time with the Cardinals. He went 5-14 with a 5.04 ERA in 27 starts against division foes, who averaged .300 and slugged .441 against him. The Cardinals were 7-20 in these starts.
There was some mystique last weekend whether or not Leake would make a start against Tampa Bay. At about that time, Mozeliak asked Leake’s agent if Leake would have interest in going to Seattle and if Leake would waive the no-trade. So, that start, in which Leake gave up four runs, all on solo homers, in seven innings, was more or less a showcase start.
Leake, who had just purchased a new house in St. Louis, was expected to join his new team in Seattle on Friday. As he prepared to board a plane, Leake told Seattle reporters, “I’m just excited to be heading to be part of the Mariners. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s nice to be coming to a new team with a fresh start.”
The Mariners are close in the AL wild-card hunt and Leake said, “I was able to move to a team with a potential to make a push. It’s a team I’ve always paid attention to because I grew up a Mariners fan and now that I get a chance to put their uniform on and represent this team, it’s a huge thing for me and my family.”
Leake, describing his recent decline, said, “I think my body just took a little turn after those first 10 starts. I was kind of in recoup mode instead of continue-to-go-forward mode. So at this point, I think I’ve kind of worked those kinks out and I look forward to another good stretch.”
Of leaving the Cardinals, Leake, 29, said, “This whole situation had to happen where they decided to go younger. It’s not a good feeling when you’re leaving, but it’s exciting to move on.”
Mozeliak said part of the reason Leake was signed in the first place was to replace the innings usually pitched by someone (Lance Lynn) who was injured. “At the time, we hadn’t drafted Dakota Hudson yet,” said Mozeliak. “We were still seeing the growth of someone like Jack Flaherty.”
There were “live arms” all over, Mozeliak said, and “there’s going to be a lot of guys that are going to be knocking on the door to pitch, and pitch soon. We really had to figure out a way to create that opening.” Mozeliak said Flaherty “likely is going to pitch in the big leagues this year.”
Whether injured Adam Wainwright pitches in the majors this year still is open to question although Mozeliak said the veteran, recovering from an elbow ailment, may be cleared to throw next week. Whether he comes back as a starter, though, also may be problematic.
“I don’t think we’ve drawn any conclusions on that,” Mozeliak said. “We have to keep all options open,” Matheny said.
Mozeliak allowed that the Leake move gave the Cardinals some payroll flexibility in the offseason although he admitted, “This is a team that’s difficult to put your thumb on exactly what you want to see done, as far as future trades or future free-agent market.”