Jose De Leon, Dodgers, RHP
De Leon is an unusual story for a top pitching prospect: a late-round pick from Southern University who has significantly changed both his body (lost nearly 40 pounds), and subsequently, his stuff. De Leon is a fairly safe prospect: he has good velocity, a competent and balanced mix of pitches, and the ability to stay around the strike zone. I’ve heard opinions from other scouts ranging from number two starter to number four, but the reality is: if everyone agrees that you profile in a big league rotation, you’re doing something right. Numerous things right, more likely.
De Leon works from an easily-repeated full windup, breaking his hands over his head and extending well down the mound through his pitches. He has a clean, compact-in-the-back high three-quarters arm-slot, and that’s where his consistent control and extension originate from. In this look, De Leon was 93-94 with his fastball, though it’s a fairly true four-seamer that can ride up into dangerously-hittable quadrants of the strike zone. He’s flashed some 95s, 96s, and even a few 97s in the past, but over a full season he’s likely to sit in the 92-95 range. While De Leon certainly does not have poor velocity, I would still like to see him throw a two-seam fastball more often, if his ability to angle the ball to the lower-third doesn’t take steps forward.
De Leon’s changeup grades out ahead of his slider, possessing a high likelihood of playing as a swing-and-miss pitch given his mid-90s fastball. He showed consistent sell on the pitch in terms of his arm-speed, generating above-average turnover that got swings and misses against both lefties and righties. De Leon has every chance to be the rare right-handed starter operating with a truly plus change. When he’s up in the count and working at his peak velocity, he can make hitters look pretty bad—consistently generating awkward swings, especially against opposite-handed bats. His slider is closer to average: an 82-85 mph offering with solid tilt, but not truly a wipeout pitch. Perhaps most importantly, De Leon has shown consistent ability to keep hitters from jumping on his fastball by throwing both his changeup and slider for strikes.
Though some have chastised the Dodgers for not being more aggressive on the starting pitching market this offseason, I think the club held pat in part due to their confidence in young arms like De Leon factoring in to their rotation long-term. I’ll settle on the midpoint—this guy is probably a no. 3 type ceiling on a first-division club—but De Leon’s mix of stuff and polish is impressive. He should debut sometime in 2016.
Sean Manaea, Oakland, LHP
Readers might remember Manaea as one of the more polarizing draftees in the 2013 class. He’s forever linked to Royals’ prospect Hunter Dozier (see Dozier in Quick Hits), as Kansas City took Dozier 10th-overall in a risky play to pool enough money to land Manaea—who had fallen down draft boards due to a hip injury—with the 34th-overall selection. Manaea was shipped to Oakland at the deadline last season for Ben Zobrist. He dominated upon the move to Oakland’s system, posting a sub-2.00 ERA across seven starts while striking out nearly 30 percent of opposing batters.
Manaea’s delivery is one of trade-offs: it allows him great angle (especially against left-handed bats) and deception, but also is difficult to repeat at times, putting great stress on the hip that has been such a lingering issue. He pitches from a full-windup, breaking his hands over his head through a slow-paced leg lift in which he turns away from the batter. He lands closed and works cross-fire around his front leg, finishing across his body with his backside swinging around fairly hard. All that said, Manaea is a good athlete for his physical 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame, who sticks his landings down the mound through a lower three-quarters arm-slot. It isn’t necessarily a sure-fire delivery, so much as it is one that’s fairly high-maintenance.
In last week’s look, Manaea’s fastball was working in its usual low-to-mid-90s range, jumping on hitters quickly hidden behind a closed front side. He was pretty clearly working under mandates to throw changeups, which makes sense given how early in March it was—not to mention Manaea could use some development of a third pitch. The changeup shows more glove-side action than traditional circle-change movement away from righties, as Manaea’s lower, cross-body arm-slot cuts the pitch. He’s shown a plus slider in the past—a wipeout two-planer in the mid 80s at best—but the few he snapped off in this viewing lacked command, which is more the issue with his breaking ball.
The same concerns that gave scouts trepidation in 2013 (control, health) still could be described as the “risk factors” for him moving forward. I have high hopes for Manaea’s future and his ceiling, but there’s certainly more risk here relative to some other top pitching prospects. When Manaea is on, there’s not a level of pro baseball where he’s particularly hittable. When he’s off, it’s usually due to bouts of wildness, and those can still plague him given his deceptive, but complex, mechanics. The determining factor will come down to his ability to land his secondary pitches for strikes, particularly his slider. He’ll need to do that if he wants to keep big-league hitters off his fastball, which can’t survive on velocity alone.
Kenta Maeda, Dodgers, RHP
Maeda faced off against an A’s lineup filled mostly with big-league regulars. While fans shouldn’t expect Maeda to fill the Greinke-sized hole in LA’s rotation, his plus pitchability and overall control—especially of his secondary offerings—were very impressive. Maeda’s stuff won’t ever leave massive margin for error from a “command within the strike zone” perspective, but he has fantastic body awareness and ability to extend through his delivery. Maeda changes speeds well between his pitches, commanding the ball well to different quadrants of the strike zone with easy intent.
For a delivery comparison, Maeda’s mechanics are very similar to Daisuke Matsuzaka (remember him?). He pitches from a slow-paced full-windup, breaking his hands over his head and legitimately coming to numerous pauses throughout the delivery. The stop-and-start nature of his mechanics give some deception, occasionally speeding his fastball up and jumping it up on hitters. As would be expected from a pitcher with such aforementioned command and control, Maeda finishes down the mound with great extension and balance.
In my look at Maeda, his fastball operated in the low 90s with running life in on right-handed hitters. His most effective secondary offering was a circle-change with above-average turnover. What was most impressive about his change was how well he could land it on the corners, or throw it double up on it with such command that he didn’t pay the price for delivering consecutive mid-80s pitches in zone. There were numerous instances where Maeda successfully made his 91-92 fastball look firmer because of his ability to pitch backwards—only throwing his average fastball after hitters had seen the kitchen sink of secondary offerings earlier in the at-bat. Maeda mixed breaking balls all afternoon: he’ll cast a big, loopy breaking ball in the lower-to-mid 70s with good shape to the lower parts of the strike zone, while also showing a more traditional slider in the low 80s with average tilt.
Maeda doesn’t possess the wipeout stuff to profile as an ace for a contending club. That said, I came away feeling adamant that his control and pitchability will allow what otherwise constitutes as back-end starter stuff to play up to reliable middle-rotation contribution.
Aroni Nina, Royals, RHP
Nina is a good example of why velocity alone is far from a guarantee of big league contribution. He’s an unusually sinewy, lean 6-foot-4, 165 pounds—and now that he’s in his mid-20s, he no longer qualifies as projectable so much as just skinny and bony. Nina has never had much statistical success because his control is well below-average, and subsequently, he’s had a very slow ascent through the minorsThe Royals have been working with Nina to harness his control and command, as he was working exclusively from a fairly simple stretch-only. Even from the simplest of motions, however, Nina demonstrated continual trouble repeating his delivery. Nina’s arm actually works fluidly and quickly through a release point ranging from high-three-quarters to a true three-quarters. The issue is his extension and timing, as his upper and lower halves don’t often work together and can throw him off-line. Nina is a low-level prospect solely on the strength of his fastball, which sat comfortably between 93-96 and has touched 97 in the past. He threw both a hard, split-like change (85-86) and cutter/slider hybrid (85-90), though the split was by far the better of the two secondary offerings. His cutter lacked action and didn’t achieve two-plane depth. Nina will need the stars to align to bring out his arm-strength in a lower-leverage relief role, but still constitutes as a low-level Royals prospect for the most ardent observers of Kansas City’s system.
Matt Strahm, Royals, LHP
Strahm was a late-round pick from a Junior College in 2012. He returned from Tommy John surgery in 2015, and posted an encouraging stat line at High-A Wilmington. Strahm made a spot start in big league camp against the Mariners. He works free and easy through his delivery’s finish, though his low three-quarters arm-slot doesn’t do his curveball or command many favors. Strahm worked right at 89-90 mph with a little natural arm-side tail on his fastball, though he didn’t operate in the zone with command that would play consistently against high-level opponents. Through two innings, he didn’t show much of a changeup—favoring a loopy, loose side-to-side breaking ball in the low 70s that was below-average. Strahm struck out 30 percent of batters across 11 High-A starts in 2015, walking 2.51 per nine innings. Someone could sell me on that walk number reflecting Strahm’s true talent level, but expecting the same type of dominating strikeout numbers from him as he progresses up the ladder is a stretch. While he certainly has a future in the higher-rungs of a professional organization, he’ll need to add a little more polish and/or stuff to project as a consistent big league contributor.
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