The Situation: The birth of Zack Greinke’s son forced the Dodgers to shuffle their rotation this weekend. Ian Thomas filled in on Friday and was optioned Saturday afternoon to make room for another starter, Zach Lee, who will pitch today against the Mets.
Background: A controversial first round selection in 2010, the Dodgers surprised most draft analysts when they ponied up a club record $5.25 million signing bonus to steer Lee away from his commitment to play quarterback at LSU. He’s pitched well over the last five years, although he’s been a slow mover and hasn’t been the dominant arm some projected he’d develop into. He fell off of BP’s top 101 list after a disappointing 2014 season, but he’s rebounded in his second spin through the PCL, posting a 2.36 ERA with 50 strikeouts and 14 walks in 68 innings.
Scouting Report: As you’d expect in a former first rounder with five years of professional experience, Lee is polished for a rookie. The right-hander is athletic and repeats his delivery well, maintaining consistent arm speed on all four of his pitches. Lee can touch the mid-90’s when he reaches back for something extra with his fastball but he generally sits a bit lower than that and also works with a changeup, slider, and curve.
Of the secondaries, the changeup is probably his best pitch. It flashes above average with tumbling action and it’s been a weapon for him against lefties. The curve is a show-me pitch, a slow 12-6 breaker without sharp break that works best as a change of pace to steal a strike. He’s had trouble getting hitters to chase it out of the zone and he won’t induce many whiffs with it when he throws it for a strike. The slider will be key for him: it’s an average offering that he moves around the zone well. At it’s best, it’s a chase pitch against righties and a reliable backdoor breaking ball to lefties, although it’s more of a barrel-misser than anything else.
Throughout his minor league career, Lee hasn’t missed many bats and he’s struggled against right-handed hitters. He’s been better against them in 2015 but righties torched him last season, hitting .317 with 13 homers. Part of that stems from an inconsistent slider: he’ll hang it sometimes and it’s not an out pitch. To have success, he’ll need to locate his offspeed pitches well against both lefties and righties, as he doesn’t have the raw stuff to survive many mistakes.
Without a plus secondary or the fastball he had as a teenager, Lee is more of a backend starter than the No. 2 the Dodgers envisioned when they drafted him. He has some feel for sequencing and he generally stays out of the middle of the plate, so he should survive in the back end of a big league rotation. He has a workhorse’s build and he’s been durable throughout his minor league career, so he could have a long career as a starter if he stays healthy.
It’s also worth mentioning that Lee’s stirrup game is very strong and that he will be among the league’s best dressers from the outset.
Immediate Big League Future: Greinke returns from paternity leave Sunday but Brandon Beachy’s demotion leaves a hole in the rotation that Lee will presumably fill. He’s pitched well in the PCL this year, and provided that he doesn’t struggle too badly initially, he could be up for a while. That said, upcoming off days could allow the Dodgers to function with only four starters if they so choose. — Brendan Gawlowski
Fantasy Impact: On the one hand, fantasy managers shouldn’t overreact too gravely to the box score tire fire Zach Lee lit in his big league debut yesterday. On the other, that result is exactly the kind of worst-case scenario that’s in play for a rookie with Lee’s profile. He lacks a true put-away pitch, relying instead on above-average command and pitchability with a deep arsenal. It’s a solid enough recipe on balance, but the best-case scenario is still a fairly modest return of Win potential and solid-if-unspectacular ratios. And the risk is high enough to more than offset that upside in the vast majority of match-ups he’s likely to draw. When the command isn’t there in a given start things can get ugly for him quickly. Getting roughed up by the Mets, after all, is a helpful reminder that even the worst offenses in the Major Leagues are still full of Major Leaguers.
In deeper dynasty formats, say 18-plus teams and 200-plus prospects, there’s probably a place for Zach Lee. Where there probably isn’t a place for him, certainly with any regularity, is in the Dodgers rotation for the rest of the season. It would be pretty surprising if the Dodgers didn’t go out and acquire at least one additional starting pitcher over the next week, and Lee’s roster spot almost certainly figures to be the casualty when and if they do. Even if the seemingly inevitable does not happen, he’d line up next for an unappealing turn against an Angels offense that has been a top-five unit in baseball over the past month.
Lee can be effectively ignored in all re-draft formats at this time, and should not be targeted for an add in any dynasty formats in which he isn’t currently owned. If injury strikes down the stretch he’ll likely be among the potential fill-ins, and would be a case-by-case streaming option in NL-only formats in that event. —Wilson Karaman