Giants make needed rotation upgrade with trade for Reds starter Mike Leake

The Giants capped a busy day of trades by completing a deal for Reds starting pitcher Mike Leake late Thursday. Leake should be a solid upgrade over Tim Hudson, helping fortify San Francisco's rotation as it looks to repeat as World Series champion.
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The arms race in the National League West continued into the night on Thursday with the Giants responding to the Dodgers13-player megadeal by acquiring Mike Leake from the Reds for pitching prospect Keury Mella and minor league slugger Adam Duvall. Leake, a free agent this fall, is expected to represent a significant upgrade on 40-year-old Tim Hudson in the Giants’ rotation as San Francisco seeks to keep the pressure on the first-place Dodgers, whom they trail by just a half-game heading into Friday’s action.

The Giants have shaved five games off the Dodgers’ lead over their last 15 games, going 13–2 over that stretch thanks in part to getting several key players back from the disabled list this month, including Hunter Pence, Jake Peavy, Matt Cain, Nori Aoki and Jeremy Affeldt. Hudson also returned during that stretch after spending nearly a month on the DL with a shoulder strain, but his first two starts back have been unimpressive (totaling 9 IP, 12 H, 6 R, 4 BB, 4 K), and his 73 ERA+ is the worst mark on the team among pitchers with 40 or more innings pitched and the seventh-worst mark in the majors among pitchers with 100 or more innings pitched.

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The upgrade from Hudson to Leake is thus significant more because of how poorly Hudson has pitched this season than because of how well Leake is expected to pitch. Despite being selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2009 draft, Leake has been little more than a league-average arm in the major leagues. In fact, his career ERA+ at the time of this trade is exactly 100. Despite possessing a swing-and-miss slider, Leake’s 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings this season rank as the 11th-lowest K/9 among qualified major league pitchers (Hudson’s is fourth-lowest), and among pitchers with 1,000 or more innings pitched over the last six seasons, his 6.1 K/9 is the seventh-lowest. Though ostensibly a groundballer, Leake’s groundball rate is not so extreme as to assuage concerns about his low strikeout rate. In fact, the only reason he has been above average in run prevention this season is that he has benefited from a career-low .266 opponent’s batting average on balls in play, a mark that could easily be attributed to the excellent Cincinnati defense (fourth-best in the majors per park-adjusted defensive efficiency).

Of course, the Giants' fielders aren’t much worse, ranking sixth in PADE, and the shift from Great American Ball Park to AT&T Park is a massive improvement in run-scoring environment for Leake, who is moving from one of the most offense-friendly ballparks in the majors to one of the most pitcher-friendly. For a pitcher who allows a ton of balls in play, that could have a particularly large influence on Leake’s results. That said, ERA+ already adjusts for park factors, as does Deserved Run Average, which corrects for a host of other outside influences as well (including team defense, catcher framing, umpiring and weather) and tells us that the quality of Leake’s pitching thus far this season indicates he should be allowing 3.75 runs per nine innings rather than the 3.62 he has actually allowed before correcting for his hitter-friendly home ballpark.

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All of which is to say that while Leake is a clear upgrade, it’s unlikely that adding Leake alone can match the upgrade the Dodgers made earlier in the day in adding Mat Latos and Alex Wood to their rotation, one of the two filling an essentially vacant fifth-starter spot, and adding Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan to their bullpen.

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Fortunately, the Giants didn’t give up all that much for the two-month rental. Keury Mella was among the better pitching prospects in the Giants’ organization, but that strikes me as a damning comment on San Francisco’s farm. A 21-year-old Dominican righthander, Mella has a great fastball that sits in the mid-90s and seems far faster thanks to how well Mella’s slightly awkward delivery hides the ball. However, his secondary pitches, a curve and changeup, are still developing, and that awkward delivery raises concerns about his durability. Indeed, Mella spent seven weeks on the disabled list due to a rotator cuff issue in 2014 and spent two more weeks on the DL in late June of this year. He has never thrown more than 85 1/3 innings in a season and, to my eye, could wind up as a reliever despite him having a thick starter’s build, good results in high A and some projections putting his ceiling as high as a No. 2 starter.

Duvall, meanwhile, will turn 27 in early September and, despite displaying 30-homer power in the upper minors, would seem to have no future beyond that of a right-handed bench bat as a corner infielder headed to a team built around Joey Votto and Todd Frazier. Truth be told, Duvall, whose 10 games in the outfield this season comprise the extent of his professional exposure in the pastures, is a defensive liability anywhere but first base and failed to impress in his brief major league look with the Giants when Brandon Belt was on the DL last year.

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Given that, this is very nearly a straight-up Leake-for-Mella swap. That strikes me as a completely acceptable price to pay for a much-needed upgrade for a team with very real title hopes, as well as an acceptable return for two months of a pending free agent for a team that did far better cashing in its ace, Johnny Cueto, last weekend. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that Leake grew up a Giants fan in the San Diego area and was a childhood teammate of Brett Bochy, son of San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy. Given the Giants’ propensity for re-signing the free agents from their playoff teams during their current run, don’t be surprised if Leake is a Giant for more than just the remainder of this season.