All About Jose De Leon
Image courtesy of Jake Roth, USA TodayBack in early October, while the Los Angeles was still mounting its postseason push, I noted via tweet that a Dozier-for-De Leon swap "makes too much sense." In the Offseason Handbook (still available for free download!), the Dodgers were the first team we listed as a fit for Dozier, and our Offseason Blueprint suggested trading the second baseman for a return led by De Leon.
Now, the Twins are consistently being connected to Los Angeles in trade rumors. Last week Aaron Gleeman relayed, per league sources, a feeling that the two teams are haggling over what would come along with De Leon in a deal. Days later, Yahoo Sports columnist Jeff Passan reinforced that notion, reporting that the "Dodgers have shown willingless" to include the top prospect in a package for Dozier. It's all coming together pretty much exactly like we predicted and hoped.
My intention here isn't to pat myself on the back. Anticipating this scenario didn't require some divine prescience – only an ability to connect the dots. The Twins are coming off a 103-loss season and could use a major shakeup, with a roster featuring a surplus of power hitting and an extreme dearth of high-caliber pitching. Meanwhile, the Dodgers are as motivated as any team in the league to get over the hump and win a title, with young arms to spare.
The top prize amongst that group, Julio Urias, was never a particularly realistic target. After successfully transitioning to the majors at age 19 and subsequently becoming the youngest pitcher ever to start a postseason game, he's not the kind of asset that was going to be made available.
De Leon, though? Far more plausible. He is four years older than Urias and doesn't carry quite the same level of luster. He also struggled a bit in his MLB debut this year and has dealt with some shoulder issues. He's not a perfect prospect.
But that doesn't mean he's leftover scraps. Far from it. In the majority of systems De Leon would be the No. 1 prospect, and if he comes over he will immediately leapfrog every pitcher on the farm for the Twins.
Let's familiarize ourselves with De Leon as we prepare for the possibility that he headlines an upcoming Dozier blockbuster.
After finishing up high school in his native Puerto Rico, De Leon headed to the mainland to attend college in Baton Rouge. His career with Southern University featured solid numbers, including a 17-8 record and 3.50 ERA over three seasons, but he didn't catch the eyes of many pro scouts.
As a result, the slender righty dropped all the way to the 24th round. He was the 724th player selected in 2013. Earlier in that round, the Twins took Brandon Easton, a pitcher who lasted two years in rookie ball before fizzling out of the system. For players selected this late, the odds of reaching the majors – or even hanging on in the affiliated pro ranks for long – are not good.
Against this backdrop, De Leon's ascension is all the more impressive. His numbers began to rapidly improve and remained strong as he climbed the ladder. He impressed enough at each level that he never stayed anywhere for long. De Leon made four starts at Low-A, seven at High-A, 16 at Double-A and then 16 at Triple-A before getting his call to the big leagues.
Everywhere he pitched, it took him no more than half a season to convince the front office that he was too good for the competition. Prospect pubs quickly took notice. Prior to the 2016 campaign, three major lists (Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com) had De Leon somewhere between 23 and 28, after never ranking him before.
The website Minor League Ball, run by longtime prospect guru John Sickels, had De Leon ranked as the game's 14th-best upcoming talent in their preseason release. In the updated end-of-year rankings, published in late September, he was fifth. Sickels placed only Yoan Moncada, Dansby Swanson, Tyler Glasnow and Lucas Giolito ahead of De Leon.
The 24-year-old owes his escalating profile to a number of skills and strengths, but none stand out more than this one:
He's A Strikeout Machine
De Leon's ability to throw the ball past helpless opposing hitters is truly something to behold. During his time in the minors, he has struck out 446 of the 1,371 men he has faced over 330 innings. That's a 12.1 K/9 average and 33 percent rate. For perspective, Jose Berrios – a fellow Puerto Rican and vaunted strikeout artist in his own right – has a 26 percent K-rate in the minors. De Leon would have easily led both the Texas League (AA) and Pacific Coast League (AAA) this year if he had stuck around long enough to qualify.
It's been somewhat rare for the Twins to boast starting pitching prospects who can even average one strikeout per inning. De Leon has 100 more strikeouts than innings pitched during his relatively short time in the Dodgers system.
When so few balls are put into play, it's tough to scratch out many hits. So it's no surprise that in those 330 innings of work, De Leon has allowed only 273 hits. Twins pitchers have allowed the most hits of any American League team in five straight seasons.
De Leon's Changeup Is A Devastating Weapon
In the tradition of Johan Santana, De Leon relies on his changeup as an out pitch. He's comfortable throwing it in any count, and uses it often. The arm action effectively mimics his fastball to create deception, but he takes about 10 MPH off it with significant vertical movement. (Scroll down to the changeup section here for some good looks at it.)
Twins pitching coach Neil Allen, who is staying on for 2017, is known to be "big on changeups." He would undoubtedly welcome the chance to work with a starter who has developed the offering into a centerpiece of his repertoire.
The Shoulder Is A Concern
Or at least, it was. De Leon spent the first month this year in extended spring while recovering from an ankle injury, then made just one start before sitting out another five weeks due to shoulder inflammation. It's not the greatest sign for a guy who is just getting his season started.
The Dodgers proceeded very cautiously when the hurler returned from the disabled list, removing him before the fifth inning in each of his first four starts. But by the time he graduated from Triple-A those restrictions were a distant memory. In his final 10 turns with Oklahoma City prior to a September promotion to the majors, De Leon completed seven-plus innings six times and exceeded 100 pitches four times. He also went 6-1 with a 2.43 ERA.
At this point there isn't much reason to think he's got a bad wing, but it's something to keep an eye on. He hasn't thrown more than 114 total innings in a season, so he needs to prove he can hold up to a starter's workload. He appeared to wear down in his final starts for the Dodgers.
Perhaps this is the main factor compelling the Twins to a hold out for a bit more in addition to De Leon. That's reasonable enough. But even with some minor health concerns, the highly touted late bloomer appears to be a worthy top prize in exchange for Dozier. He would also provide a dramatic boost to an already encouraging pipeline of impending arrivals.
Hopefully Derek Falvey and Thad Levine can get this thing done.
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