The Situation: Nobody’s pitching staff has endured more injuries than Los Angeles’s has in 2016. Only Kenta Maeda and Scott Kazmir have made 20 starts, and the Dodgers have had to send 14 different starting pitchers to the hill. In addition to a certain left-handed Cy Young winner, they’ve used a guy you forgot was in the organization, a guy you never realized was in the organization, and a guy you forgot about when he left the organization; a major league journeyman and a minor league journeyman; internal injury-prone hurlers and imported injury-prone hurlers; a teenage phenom and at least one guy you probably hadn’t heard of until you saw him in a box score. Now the Dodgers turn to Jose De Leon, their top pitching prospect, as they push for the division in September.
Background: A 24th-round pick out of Southern University in 2013, De Leon struggled in his pro debut before emerging as a pop-up prospect in 2014. He had pedestrian stuff in college, but his fastball ticked up soon after he signed, and his star rose quickly once he reached full season ball. He breezed through the Cal League last season and struck out well over a batter per inning after a midseason promotion to Double-A. This year, De Leon has arguably been the best pitcher in the PCL. The 24-year-old has posted a 2.61 ERA while striking out 111 hitters while walking just 20 in 86 innings. He’s been on a roll lately too, having not allowed a hit in three weeks or a run since Independence Day*.
Scouting Report: De Leon has improved just about every facet of his game over the last three years. He’s in better shape than he was in college, and just as importantly, his re-worked delivery has helped him throw strikes more consistently. De Leon’s mechanics are simple and repeatable: there’s not much extraneous movement, his arm action and landing are clean, and he doesn’t have a big head whack. Like many young pitchers, he’ll overthrow occasionally, and when he does, he falls off towards the first base dugout, which hinders his command. Stuff-wise, he sits 91-94 with the fastball, touching 96 and higher on the right day, and the pitch has plenty of life. His best offspeed pitch is a tumbling changeup that projects as a plus offering. He also has an average slider that isn’t quite as consistent as his other deliveries.
If De Leon has a weakness, it’s that he might be vulnerable to the home run. He fills up the zone, and if he’s not sharp or if his slider isn’t missing bats, big-league hitters will square him up. If he struggles at all initially, it’ll be interesting to see how his approach evolves; remember, this is not a pitcher who has experienced much failure as a professional. Ultimately though, De Leon is a relatively safe arm. His ability to pump mid-90s fastballs gives him wiggle room on days when he doesn’t have his best command, and both of his offspeed pitches will generate outs. He lacks top-of-the-shelf stuff, but he has all the ingredients necessary to be a good no. 3.
Immediate Big League Future: De Leon has drawn the start for Sunday’s game against San Diego, but it’s not clear where he fits in LA’s disorderly rotation going forward. Counting De Leon, the Dodgers are in the midst of using seven different starters in as many games; meanwhile, Clayton Kershaw and Brett Anderson are on the mend and scheduled to make rehab starts this week. Once barren, the Dodger rotation is now crammed, and while De Leon could soon occupy a higher rung on the rotation hierarchy than Brock Stewart or Julio Urias, his innings might come in irregular doses this month. Alternatively, six of these dudes could banjanx their elbows tomorrow. Who really knows with this team. — Brendan Gawlowski
Fantasy Take: There’s a lot to like in De Leon’s minor league numbers. In 86.3 innings in Triple-A this year, the 24-year-old posted a 2.61 ERA with a 0.94 WHIP with 111 strikeouts and twenty walks. That’s tremendous. However, he’s quickly approaching his career-high in innings, 114 1/3, set last season between High-A and Double-A. His start on Sunday at home against the Padres is about as favorable as it can get. Beyond that, though, it’s unclear how many more starts de Leon will make as the team tries to manage his innings and multiple Dodgers starters currently on the DL are activated. That group includes the best pitcher in baseball, in case you didn’t know.
De Leon’s talent and performance make him a valuable commodity for as long as he stays in the rotation. However, if he is moved to the bullpen due to innings concerns or a glut of suddenly healthy pitchers, his value will take a hit, although there’s no reason to believe that he won’t perform well in relief. If he’s available in the free agent pool in a redraft league, you should go big on him – there might not be any promotions for the rest of the year with de Leon’s potential impact. He’s an even more attractive option in keeper leagues, although you’ll have to calibrate your bid to build in a little room for profit next year. —Scooter Hotz
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