By Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
2016 season (Minors): 16 G, 16 GS, 86 1/3 IP, 2.61 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 7 W, 111 SO, 20 BB
2016 season (Majors): 4 G, 4 GS, 17 IP, 6.35 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 2 W, 15 SO, 7 BB
If there’s one thing the Tampa Bay Rays have not lacked over the past decade, it’s good young pitching. From James Shields and David Price to Chris Archer and Blake Snell, the Rays have never been short on budding arms. This January, the rich got richer by trading infielder Logan Forsythe to the Los Angeles Dodgers for top pitching prospect Jose De Leon.
Drafted by the Dodgers in the late rounds of the 2013 MLB Draft, De Leon didn’t really hit the map until he broke out in ‘15, striking out 163 batters in 114 1/3 innings with a 1.09 WHIP. Entering last season, De Leon was considered a top 25 prospect by Baseball America and MLB.com. He answered the buzz with 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings and a K-BB% of 26.6, which topped all Triple-A starters — ahead of fellow top prospects Jameson Taillon of the Pittsburgh Pirates and new teammate Snell.
It was smooth sailing to the Majors in September, but that’s where De Leon hit a wall. The young right-hander impressed in his debut, striking out nine in six quality innings to earn the win. In his next three starts, control issues and the long ball did De Leon in. He walked seven, hit two batters and gave up 13 runs (nine earned) and four home runs in 11 innings.
The small sample size wasn’t enough to scare off Tampa Bay, but it may have been enough to help them acquire De Leon in exchange for the 30-year-old Forsythe. With Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb and Snell likely locked into the rotation barring injuries, De Leon will have to beat out Matt Andriese for the No. 5 spot. Andriese was decent last season for the Rays but doesn’t have the upside of De Leon, who will have the inside track over Andriese at the start of Spring Training.
De Leon primarily relies on two pitches: a deceptive low-to-mid 90 miles per hour fastball that generates a high number of swings and misses (10.2% swinging-strike rate) along with a changeup that clocks in around 10 MPH slower than the fastball. He also mixes in a slider and curveball as secondary pitches.
The righty will have to shake the control issues he showed in his last few MLB starts, but considering he was known for his control in the Minors, it’s something that isn’t overly concerning unless it rears its head again this spring. The home runs could be a legitimate concern, but that’s something many young pitchers struggle with. De Leon allowed nine homers in Triple-A last year and 12 the year before, averaging close to one home run per nine innings in his Minor League career. While he’s had success with his fastball, it does clock in in the low 90s often, which is something big league hitters could connect on with more regularity despite the movement.
If everyone in the rotation is healthy and De Leon has some issues this spring, don’t be surprised to see him start the year in the Minors. Even if that does happen, he probably won’t be there for long. ZiPS and Steamer projections both have him making 20-plus starts with the Rays this season.
Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo.