Leake signing includes hidden benefit for Cardinals

The average fan might regard $80 million as too high a price for free-agent right-hander Mike Leake, whose career performance rates as barely above-average when his ERA is adjusted to his league and ballpark.

However, the Cardinals’ agreeing to sign Leake to a five-year contract Tuesday included a hidden benefit – the team will retain its first-round draft pick, No. 30 overall.

Leake, 28, did not cost the Cardinals a pick because he was traded in the middle of last season, making him ineligible for a qualifying offer. The Cardinals, meanwhile, gained two picks between the first and second rounds after losing free-agent right-hander John Lackey and right fielder Jason Heyward to the Cubs.

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Teams generally view a late first-round pick as worth between $5 million and $8 million, according to major-league sources. So, Leake’s net cost might be more in the $72 million to $75 million range, at least before adding his own hidden benefit, a full no-trade clause.

Retaining either Lackey or Heyward would have cost the Cardinals one of those extra picks, making the net cost even higher. It’s the Leake math in reverse – the loss of an asset valued between $5 million and $8 million (maybe slightly lower for a compensation pick) would have served as the equivalent of a tax on the player’s guarantee.

Lackey, who signed a two-year, $32 million contract, effectively would have cost the Cardinals $37 million to $40 million under the same terms. He is a more accomplished pitcher than Leake. He is also nine years older.

Comparisons between the two are inevitable – they received the same average annual value over different terms. But the No. 30 pick also figures into the equation, as does the pick the Cardinals gained for losing Lackey.

When it comes to the draft, at least, the Cardinals are ahead.