Currently ranked as the number two prospect behind phenom Julio Urias, Jose De Leon has had a meteoric yet unexpected rise through the Dodgers’ prospect rankings. Drafted in the 24th round of the 2013 draft out of Southern University, De Leon was not expected to make much of an impact in the Dodgers’ system. His first season in professional baseball did not go well as De Leon struggled to the tune of a 6.96 ERA over 13 starts in rookie ball. De Leon bounced back in 2014 and began to show that he could become a top prospect the next year by posting a 2.22 ERA to go along with a tremendous 119 strikeouts in only 77 innings. Since his breakout season, De Leon has firmly established himself as one of the premier right-handed prospects in major league baseball. Baseball America ranked De Leon as the 23rd best prospect in the game prior to the 2016 season, and at 23 years old, the Puerto Rican is knocking on the door of a big league promotion. With that being said, what can Dodger fans expect from De Leon over the long term, and perhaps more importantly, does his future lie with the Dodgers or elsewhere?
Possessing a good fastball-changeup-slider combination with the occasional get-me-over curveball, De Leon has a very strong arsenal of pitches. His fastball and changeup are certainly his two best pitches and his slider appears to be a decent third offering that can be effective when thrown in the bottom of the zone. His fastball sits “around 92-93 mph, but flashed plus command and late riding life that hitters struggled to pick up”. De Leon’s changeup is even more effective, garnering a 70/80 rating from True Blue LA and a 60/80 rating from the conservative Baseball America scouting reports. He has a good arm-action and fade on the pitch, leading it to be De Leon’s main strikeout pitch. For a pitcher whose strikeout rate is regularly above 12 per nine innings, his changeup is a serious weapon. Paired with a well-controlled, late riding fastball, De Leon has a dynamic two pitch combination that helps him to be a strikeout machine. This year over four starts at AAA, De Leon has a ridiculous 14 strikeouts per nine innings with only three walks per nine. As a result, De Leon has posted a 2.40 ERA and an even more impressive 2.37 FIP (fielding independent pitching). De Leon’s strikeout rates would surely decline at the big league level, but as he matures his command will only improve. All of these factors combined lead to a long-term upside as a number three starter with number two potential.
I believe a good pro comparison for the Dodgers’ young prospect is James Shields. De Leon is a little bit smaller at 6’2” 190 lbs. compared to Shields at 6’3” 215 lbs., but both pitchers have made a name for themselves with a great fastball-changeup combination (baseball-reference). Shields has been well known for his changeup that absolutely disappears, and from all indications, De Leon is very similar in that regard. Both pitchers also have good fastballs with solid movement and control but velocity that sits below elite levels (92-93 mph.). Shields’ third offering is a knuckle-curveball rather than De Leon’s slider, but the way in which both players rely mainly on their changeups in pitchers’ counts creates a very solid comparison between the two. At the peak of Shields’ career, he was a number two starter who recorded a 3.17 ERA over a four-year stretch between 2011-2014. These numbers would be a very realistic expectation for De Leon to record over the prime of his career. De Leon’s strikeout rates are far better than Shields’ were in minors, suggesting that the young pitcher may have more strikeout potential than Shields. However, De Leon likely does not have Shields’ tremendous competitive grit that has been a big part of his success over the course of his career. As a result, a realistic aim for De Leon’s career would be as a strikeout pitcher similar to Shields in that he has two above average pitches to go along with solid command. If De Leon were to reach this ceiling, he would be a very solid number two or three starter who can regularly record an ERA between 3-3.5.
In the past, the Dodger’s front office has shown a huge aversion to trading De Leon, but with the team more in need of frontline talent than in years past, De Leon may be traded in the coming months. The Dodgers’ roster appears to be a piece or two away from being a true contender in the postseason, and a player of De Leon’s talent could be vital in the team acquiring the player that can push them over the top. Two pitchers—Sonny Gray and Julio Teheran—that have been mentioned as potential trade targets for the Dodgers would surely require De Leon in return since the Dodgers are not entertaining the idea of trading Julio Urias (except for maybe Mike Trout). Although unlikely based on Andrew Friedman’s track record with the Dodgers over the past year and a half, there is definitely a possibility that De Leon’s big league career begins away from Chavez Ravine.