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Updating the Top 100: The Early Departures

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In which the Reds allowed us to get a head start on writing career retrospectives.

I love everything about this delivery.
I love everything about this delivery.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The simplest and most obvious thing we can say about Mike Leake is that he was a pretty darn good draft pick.  Picked 8th in the 2009 draft, and picked on the basis of pitchability and a "high floor", rather than typical prospect calling cards of stuff and potential, Leake contributed 12 bWAR to the Reds in his almost six seasons with the team.  This is strong enough to rank as the fourth most productive career thus far among other first round selections from that season, ranking behind Mike Trout, AJ Pollock, and Stephen Strasburg.

None of this is to say that 30 years from now we will look back at the 2009 draft and suggest that Leake was the 4th best player taken in that first round.  Other players from that draft are still considered up and coming prospects.  Rather it is what it was: the Reds needed an arm that could be quickly slotted into an otherwise competent rotation and Leake successfully accomplished his mission.

In fact, one of the most compelling narratives surrounding Leake's tenure with the Reds was that he was contextually a 5th starter (Cueto, Bailey, Arroyo, and Latos all carried more cachet than Leake) while pitching far better and more reliably than any other 5th starter in the league.  No one dreams of being a 5th starter, of course, and one imagines that it grates on Leake just a bit that his only postseason appearance came as an emergency fill-in after Johnny Cueto dropped out of the Giants series in 2012.  He was better than being just an afterthought, but on the other hand, he kind of wasn't.

Leake would be a worthwhile subject for an extended study.  How has this guy not been drummed out of the league?  His strikeout rate lags well behind league averages and any fly ball he surrenders has a better than average chance of leaving the yard.  We could point to good control and a tendency to induce a ground ball, as well as a resilient and durable arm, but he might not be the kind of pitcher who will age well.  That previous sentence is the kind of nebulous bullshit a person will write when he has no idea what he is talking about.  We can talk confidently about impressions and perceptions, though.

Generally speaking, Mike Leake left a fan with three distinct impressions.  First, when the team was going well, I tended to be a bit...disappointed when I saw it was Mike Leake's turn in the rotation.  Not that he was bad; just that it was harder for me to envision a dominant outing for Leake as compared to his staffmates.  Second, when he did succeed and more specifically when he pitched really well, it always left me with the inspiring feeling that comes with the underdog succeeding.  Which is total nonsense.  Here's a first round draft pick, taken out of one of the nation's true collegiate baseball factories, who barely spent any time in the minor leagues, and I'm humming the Rocky tune every time he throws a scoreless inning.  All because he didn't throw 95, I guess.  And third, he left the impression that every time he was batting, it was a likelihood that things would go well.  His OPS with the Reds was 557, which is decent for a pitcher, but (again, impressions) more to the point he looked like he knew what he was doing.

At this year's trade deadline, Leake was sent to the Giants--€”where he struggled--€”for a modest return.  He finishes his Reds career with a record of 62-47 with an ERA of 4.18 (ERA+ = 101).  In 1,028 innings, Leake recorded 701 strikeouts and 260 walks.  His 2015 season elevated him from the #194 player in team history to #176.  Tragically, after the 2015 season, Mike Leake completely disappeared off the face of the earth and apparently will not continue his baseball career.

***

Johnny Cueto - 84

Played as Red

Primary Position

Career Rank

Peak Rank

Prime Rank

2008-2015

SP

79

94

89

Percent Breakdown of Value

Best Season

Best player on Reds

Hit

Field

Pitch

2014

N/A

0%

0%

100%

Awards/Honors as a Red

Leading the League

On the Reds Leaderboard

All-Star - 2014

Games Started - 2012, 2014

Strikeouts - 2014

Hits per 9 IP - 2014

Innings Pitched - 2014

- 4th in career K/BB ratio
- 7th in career strikeouts
- 7th in career ERA+
- 8th in career K/IP
- 23rd in career wins

The Reds, you may have noticed, tend to not develop great pitching, so let's get to the punch line.  Johnny Cueto is the best Reds pitcher in a generation (Jose Rijo) and the last good/great pitcher developed in a bit longer than that (Mario Soto).  You can feel happy about being able to watch him in his prime or sad that the Reds aren't better at this fairly important element of the game or disappointed that you had to watch him in the World Series in a blue uniform, but the odds and patterns of life tell you that you probably won't see another like Johnny for a good bit.  The interesting thing about Cueto's time with the Reds is that the at-large baseball community seemed to be looking for reasons why he wasn't that good after all.  Either he was outperforming his FIP by too great and too consistent a margin or he was previously or imminently too injury prone.

Despite my barely veiled indignation, there's an interesting question regarding Johnny Cueto and his predictable 2015 path as an inevitable trade target.  How would you expect Cueto to age?  In other words, does he represent a good value opportunity for the Giants (or perhaps another team that signs Cueto in two years).  This is completely speculative, backed by no data, but Johnny Cueto does not strike me as the kind of pitcher who will age well.  It's not that he's been fragile; rather, I think Cueto's been no more or less durable than an average starting pitcher.  But at (generously) 5'11", I imagine Cueto may be a decent bet to falter in the coming years.

This isn't meant to be a case of sour grapes.  Frankly, I wish the Reds had re-upped Cueto.  I definitely wish they felt a compulsion to keep him driven by the likelihood of the team being competitive.  But...for all the times the Reds' front office seems to screw up the timing of personnel moves, they sure did seem to nail the Cueto timing.  Signed for a relative song before breaking into elite territory, the Reds got more surplus value out of Cueto than anyone I can remember.  Now he's gone, but I'm not sure he's the pitcher I'd be betting nine digits on.

All the same, the Johnny Cueto story is the one most likely to fill you with existential ennui.  "Everything is meaningless," wrote King Solomon.  Indeed.  The Reds have approximately 79 quality pitching prospects in their pipeline, several of which came directly from the Cueto trade and none of whom should be considered realistic bets to approach what the Reds had in #47.  Responsible team management?  Most certainly.  Satisfying storyline?  Um, what part of "I'm from Cincinnati" did you not understand?

In the end, all we have to cling to are the memories, and Johnny's were far more favorable than not.  The player in my lifetime who seemed to be having more fun than everyone around him.  Plus a hella changeup to boot.

In 213 starts with the Reds, Cueto posted a record of 92-63, with an ERA of 3.21 (ERA+ = 126).  He nearly had more strikeouts (1,115) than hits surrendered (1,167).  His peak season of 2014 (20-9, 163 ERA+, 243.2 IP, 242 strikeouts, 169 hits) stands as the modern day gold standard for the franchise.  He moves from #93 to #84 on the all-time franchise list.