Trade Target: Mike Leake

There’s been plenty of banter about the future of the Reds’ rotation in the early stages of this offseason. After next year, three of Cincinnati’s rotation mainstays, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Mike Leake, are eligible to become free agents. It’s hard to envision the Reds being able to afford all three at market rate, so unless the Reds’ front office envisions its club as a contender, expect numerous teams to ask about the trio. That’s where the Yankees should come in.

Of the group, Cueto is undeniably the best. In the National League, only Clayton Kershaw posted a better ERA in 2014. Up until last season, Latos wasn’t far behind Cueto, but knee and elbow issues derailed his 2015. Circling back to Cueto; he’s not a pinnacle of health either — he’s dealt with numerous shoulder problems, particularly in 2013. So while I’d certainly take either on my team, it would make more sense for the Yankees to reserve their better prospects for a bat, as it’s a greater need. After eschewing Cueto and Latos, that leaves us with Leake.

Leake, 27 next week, isn’t the sexiest of the bunch, but he would fit in nicely in the back-end of the rotation. Right now, the fourth and fifth starters are David Phelps and Shane Greene. Yet, with health and/or performance questions abound regarding Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow, CC Sabathia‘s knee, Michael Pineda‘s shoulder, and Ivan Nova‘s return from Tommy John surgery, the Yankees need more reinforcements. Phelps and Greene would be much better served as reserves, rather than Opening Day rotation pieces. If the Yankees can retain McCarthy, and bring in another starter like Leake, they’d both be pushed to fill-in roles.

Steamer foresees Leake tossing 173 innings in 29 starts, with a 3.88 ERA and 3.93 FIP. Nothing spectacular, but fine for a back of the rotation guy. He shouldn’t be expected to blow away hitters (projected 17.1% strikeout rate), but he won’t issue many free passes (projected 5.8% walk rate). Early in his career, Leake had a propensity to serve up the long ball, allowing 1.26 HR/9 in his first three seasons. In the two seasons since, he’s dropped it to 0.97 per 9. Consequently, his ERA and FIP dropped by more than half a run between those two periods. A few reasons to believe he’d maintain that improvement at homer-friendly Yankee Stadium: he’s a ground-ball pitcher (49.9% career), Steamer foresees 0.96 HR/9 in 2015, and Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati has exhibited a greater proclivity to surrender homers than Yankee Stadium in three of the last four seasons.

So what value does Leake have? Aside from his final year of control in 2015, at an expected $9.5M salary, he’s also eligible for a qualifying offer after next year if he’s on the same team all season. Using MLB Trade Rumors transaction tracker, dating back to 2012, I’ve only found two offseason trades of starting pitchers in their final season of control: two moves that sent Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas to the Angels from Atlanta and Seattle respectively. The Angels sent Atlanta reliever Jordan Walden, and moved first baseman Kendrys Morales to Seattle. I’m not sure if either of those trades set a good precedent for a Leake deal, as Hanson and Vargas were not as good as Leake in the year before being dealt.

So what might the Reds want? Cost controlled starters to step into the rotation? Maybe a corner outfielder to go with Billy Hamilton and Jay Bruce? The problem is that the Yankees don’t have much major-league ready talent at those spots, and I don’t think the Yankees want to give up any near-ready starting pitchers because of the numerous questions about the current staff. If the Reds are willing to go long, maybe guys like Ian Clarkin, Tyler Austin, or Bryan Mitchell would intrigue them. I don’t know, maybe that wouldn’t be enough, but it’s pretty hard to predict these kind of things. What I do know is that the Yankees need to add another starter, aside from McCarthy, so a trade for Leake is worth probing.

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