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The Cardinals traded Mike Leake. What does that mean for the N.L. Central race?

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Contending teams don’t usually just dump starters like this

Mike Leake after Javier Baez hit a home run off him in June at Wrigley
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The news Wednesday morning of the trade of Mike Leake to the Mariners came as a bit of a surprise. Despite the fact that Leake had been pitching rather poorly of late (8.31 ERA over his last six starts), a team that’s purportedly in contention doesn’t usually trade away a starter just one day before the deadline for players to be in position for postseason rosters.

The deal appears to be mostly a salary dump. The Cardinals are getting back a young infielder named Rayder Ascanio, who looks like your typical good-field, no-hit middle infield type. St. Louis is also sending some cash to help cover the $55 million remaining on Leake’s contract, and the Mariners are also getting $750,000 in international bonus pool money. Leake had a full no-trade clause which he waived:

The Cardinals appear to be willing to do this because Luke Weaver has thrown well recently (10 strikeouts in each of his last two starts). Weaver has talent, no doubt, and has been a highly-regarded Cardinals prospect for a couple of years now. But this is a surprising dump of a starter the Cardinals had put a lot of money and years into when they signed him before the 2016 season.

That leaves the Cardinals rotation as: Weaver, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and... who, exactly? Is Adam Wainwright expected back from the DL soon?

The Cardinals start play Wednesday five games behind the Cubs in the N.L. Central and 5½ games back of the Rockies for the second wild card (and also trail the Brewers and Marlins for that spot, as well as trailing Milwaukee in the division).

Reports say the Mariners are getting $17 million to pay part of Leake’s contract, so they have what seems to be a decent deal: three years of Leake at $38 million, which appears to be about market rate for a pitcher of his caliber. The $38 million the Cardinals have now saved could go toward signing pitching help next offseason. But it would seem to be an abdication of any contention plans they still have for this year, not that I necessarily mind the Cardinals being out of the division race.

It’s even stranger for the Mariners, who are only three games behind the second wild card in the American League, but have five teams in front of them. GM Jerry Dipoto has been more or less addicted to trades since last offseason. This is the 21st different trade he’s made since last November, and the overall result is that the Mariners are at present just a little bit worse than they ended up in 2016 (86-76 final record).

Looks like the Cubs might be helped out a bit by this deal (this year, anyway), the Cardinals hurt a bit in the short run (though possibly better-positioned for 2018 and beyond), and the Mariners made the trade because they like making trades. In any event, it leaves the Cardinals (apparently) short of a starter until Wainwright is back.