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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

NEW YORK METS
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Signed OF-L Alejandro de Aza to a one-year, $5.75 million contract plus incentives. [12/22]

In a parallel universe, the Mets’ signing of De Aza to a short-term deal would be lauded by fans and pundits as an example of an already-solid team making upgrades around the edges. But in that kinder dimension, the Mets spent big on retaining Yoenis Cespedes to play center field and keep the team’s late-2015 offense intact. That is not our world, a world where the Wilpons cry poor and De Aza may be miscast as a regular rather than a bench piece.

De Aza certainly has his merits: the veteran outfielder is a gentle upgrade over the team’s previous fifth outfielder, Kirk Nieuwenhuis. He’s an average hitter from the left side of the plate with a career .331 OBP, and his recent performance with Boston and San Francisco seems to indicate that his shaky 2014 was an outlier, not the new normal. He also gives the Mets another hitter who avoids hitting groundballs (39 percent grounder rate last year), which appears to be something the organization values. On a tangent, check this out: New York’s Lucas Duda had the lowest GB% of any hitter in MLB with 300+ plate appearances last year. Curtis Granderson was fifth-lowest. And now the Mets have brought in Asdrubal Cabrera (28th-lowest), De Aza (58th-lowest), and Neil Walker (89th-lowest) who all live within the 33rd percentile of groundball hitters.

But on the other hand, De Aza’s presence—read that as veteran presence if you like—may cause the Mets to put him in a platoon with incumbent center fielder Juan Lagares, or to consider using him in center full-time when (not if) Lagares needs to take time off due to his nagging arm injury. De Aza is a capable enough defender in the corners, but people are still trying to destroy videos of his last season-long ride in center field (Chicago, 2013). His arm can be a liability, and the advanced range metrics do not favor him. In addition, an outfield of Granderson-De Aza-Conforto would make the lefty-heavy Mets’ lineup even less imposing against southpaws.

In a vacuum, De Aza makes sense as a short-term, low-risk acquisition for a team looking to improve depth behind Lagares. But we don’t live in a vacuum or a parallel universe, we live in a world where Yoenis Cespedes is unlikely to return to Queens, and the Mets seem unable or unwilling to invest in a vaunted “big bat.” De Aza makes sense at the fringes, but he can’t fill the holes left by Yoenis in the middle of the outfield or in the middle of the lineup. —Bryan Grosnick

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
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Signed RHP Mike Leake to a five-year deal worth $80 million with a mutual option worth another $14 to $15 million. [12/22]

What's a team to do after missing out on David Price and Jason Heyward? If you're the Cardinals, the answer is turn to a boring, no-frills mid-rotation starter.

Unlike most starters in the past who have warranted these deals with a power-baseline approach, Leake is more of a serve-and-volley pitcher: he throws strikes and generates a fair amount of grounders, but he's never going to blow anyone away on the mound or on the Baseball-Reference page. To wit, Leake had his typical season in 2015—ah, the joys of consistency—and finished with strikeout and groundball rates comparable to those posted by Yovani Gallardo (who will almost certainly receive less money this winter) and Kendall Graveman (who, Lord willing, will almost certainly receive more money in a future winter).

So why would the Cardinals splurge on Leake when the cheaper Gallardo was available? Presumably because Leake is younger (he just turned 28), doesn't cost a draft pick, and doesn't have any glaring red flags, like Gallardo's recent velocity loss. Plus—and you might read this in Joe Morgan's voice—his consistency is hard to overlook. In addition to posting an ERA+ of 95 or better in all but one of his big-league efforts, Leake has also started 30-plus times in four consecutive seasons, and has evaded the disabled list for five whole years. (His one trip came back in 2010, when he missed 16 days due to shoulder fatigue.) Credit all that to whatever blend of athleticism, luck, and smart conditioning you want; it's a plus all the same.

Especially for these Cardinals, who badly needed a sure thing. Adam Wainwright missed most of last yea due to an Achilles injury; Lance Lynn will most all of this season due to Tommy John surgery; John Lackey is elsewhere; Jaime Garcia is always a wild card; and none of the Cardinals' young arms (Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and Marco Gonzales) have proved they can be trusted as the second- or third-most reliable starter on a playoff team. The Cardinals are nearing a transitional period where they'll be flush with cash—in part because they have a ton of money coming through a new local television deal, and in part due to expiring contracts—so they can afford to pay market value to a pitcher who can help now and later.

The risk here is that Leake doesn't age well in spite of his athleticism and relative youth, and that he falls to the back of the rotation over the next two, three seasons. How likely is that? No one with a pulse can say. But the Cardinals seem willing to take the gamble, and it's hard to blame them based on what we know today. —R.J. Anderson

Fantasy Impact

Mike Leake

For nondescript fantasy starters, outside factors matters take on a much higher significance. And the move to St Louis is a net positive one for a few reasons for Leake. The ballpark is far friendlier that he was given in Cincinnati and regardless of whether Yadier Molina has come down from his defensive peak, he's still a well above-average target behind the plate. Add some of that basic devil magic to gather additional wins, and all of a sudden, Leake starts looking like a reasonable last starter in shallow mixed formats and a solid 4th starter in deeper formats. It may not last for the length of his contract, but a sub-3.50 ERA and sub-1.20 WHIP—albeit with below-average strikeouts—is a reasonable expectation and should get him pretty close to top-60 starter status for the near future.

Marco Gonzales

With Lance Lynn out for the entire season, it looked as though Gonzales might have a shot at mixed league relevancy, but with Leake in town, those chances are reduced to a Jaime Garcia injury, which is why the arrow down is mild at best. —Bret Sayre

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gilpdawg
12/23
Didn't Leake pull a hammy and go on the DL right after he was traded this past season? So 2 DL trips.
bhalpern
12/23
Maybe with all the fly ball hitters the Mets can save some money on grounds keeping by letting the infield grass grow long.
oldbopper
12/26
I was prepared to say that De Aza was not going to be a huge drop off when used in a platoon, .799 OPS, then I was stunned when I checked Cespedes's remarkable reverse splits the past 2 seasons. Still De Aza is a big improvement over Nieuwenhuis.