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Rays 2018 Closer Candidate: Jose De Leon

With Colome on the market, we consider possible replacements

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Baseball: World Baseball Classic-Puerto Rico at Venezuela Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Colome, 2017’s MLB saves leader (possibly his saving grace - pun intended) is at the center of trade rumors this offseason. Looking through the Rays depth chart, it becomes evident that most of the team’s better options are young and inexperienced, as Colome was when he earned the job.

Assuming the team goes down that road, and does not sign a closer on the free agent market, which arm is most likely to carry the job long-term if Colome is traded?

That’s what this series of articles will investigate. It assumes the Rays won’t be bringing in a veteran to take that role over in 2018.

There will obviously be many changes taking place between now and April, but we’ll do our best to present all available options and why they may - or may not - be the best for the role.

So who’s the first option we’ll look at?

Jose De Leon

The only piece the Rays received in return for Logan Forsythe - a contentious move that many Rays players were upset about - this 25-year-old right handed pitcher has yet to show his worth. Could this be his shot, after injuries slowed him down over his short time with the Rays?

Before we go on, there is a major caveat because shoulder issues - which is part of what De Leon is dealing with at this point - can be career-enders for pitchers , but there is hope.

Some pretty dominant closers have overcome shoulder issues in the past. Trevor Hoffman, he who sits second on the list of all-time save leaders , underwent shoulder surgery post-season in 1995 and still managed another 15 seasons as a dominant closer. Hoffman’s change-up was his highest rated pitch, just as it is for De Leon, and it (the circle change) helped him remain dominant post-surgery.

And while there’s hope even if he did have to go under the knife, which isn’t the preferred option, there are also new advanced treatments (some are stem cell treatments) which have resulted in healing and regained strength. These often only require a month or two to complete, allowing for De Leon to complete most available programs before the season begins.

Let’s hope that the latter has been part of De Leon’s treatment since injuries occurred, that he’s able to avoid surgery, and that he’s healthy to begin 2018.

Presuming full health, I believe De Leon is worthy of a pen role and that it may be what he’s best suited for at this point in his career. And to prove it I’ll use Jays closer Roberto Osuna as an example of why this could be the case.

Roberto Osuna: From Starter to Closer

Not so long ago, during the 2015 season, the Blue Jays needed to shake up an underperforming bullpen. They slid two rookies into the setup (Aaron Sanchez) and closer’s (Roberto Osuna) roles. And it worked.

While Sanchez had previous experience from being in the pen in 2014, he’d struggled early on in 2015 back in a starting role. Both were taking those roles over from veterans, Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos.

The results?

I’ll key in on Osuna here because it’s the pitcher and role I’d like to use as a comparison for De Leon. Over his inaugural season, Osuna managed the following,

2015: 69.2 IP, 48 hits, 16 BB, and 75 Ks while earning 20 saves (3 BS) and 7 holds, 1.3 WAR

The 1.3 WAR is notable because it ranked Osuna 25th among RP in MLB, ahead of other closers such as Shawn Tolleson (35 saves, 1.1 WAR) and Francisco Rodriguez (38 saves, 1.0 WAR).

Overall, it was a successful year, and while the Jays initially took heat for placing Osuna in the pen and actually considered bringing in the veteran and expensive Rafael Soriano, they made the right call and saved themselves enough money to land other pieces that also helped them earn two playoff appearances.

The point here, however, is not only the stuff and whether it plays well in the pen, it’s also why Osuna wound up in the pen to begin with.

Having signed with the Jays as an international free agent in 2011, Osuna wound up requiring TJ and returned in early July 2014. By this point, with three and a half years in the Jays organization, he had only managed 170 innings and faced questions of longevity as a starter. So, instead of pushing him and risking his long-term future as a starter, the Jays gave Osuna a shot in the pen, and the rest is history.

Jose De Leon has managed just over 140 innings over the last two seasons, with a short taste of MLB while with the Dodgers. Is it time to look at this outstanding 25 yr old arm differently now? And does he have the stuff to close at all?

Let’s take a closer look.

Jose De Leon: From Starter to Closer?

The Dodgers drafted De Leon - in the 24th round! - of the 2013 draft, and he’s developed his stuff to the point that Brooks Baseball has this to say about his arsenal,

On his fourseam fastball,

“a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers' fourseamers, has an obvious tail, generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers' fourseamers and has slightly below average velo”

On his change up,

has an obvious armside fade and has some natural sink to it.

On his slider,

(take this with a grain of salt because he's only thrown 15 of them in 2017), is basically never swung at and missed compared to other pitchers' sliders, has less than expected depth and has primarily 12-6 movement

On his curve,

(take this with a grain of salt because he's only thrown 9 of them in 2017) results in more flyballs compared to other pitchers' curves, has little depth and has slightly below average velo.

Most likely as a relief pitcher De Leon would be primarily using the fastball and change up to do his damage. But let’s not forget that this was NOT a healthy De Leon, as he’s dealt with right elbow tendinitis, a flexor strain, and a lat strain. Also, all that Brooks writeup stated was achieved in a starting role, not a relief role.

The Brooks assessment is backed by scouting grades for De Leon which result in the following.

Scouting grades: Fastball: 60 | Slider: 50 | Changeup: 65 | Control: 60 | Overall: 55

Now, a healthier De Leon can dial it up, and has, being regularly noted hitting 96 MPH with his fastball when healthy, so can he hit 97-98 MPH in a relief role? And does he use the change effectively against both left and right-handed batters? Seems plausible as well, particularly if they’re amped up waiting for that heater. In 2016, AAA hitters had LHB hit .212 against him, and RHB a lowly .184.

Above all, he has two pitches that grade out as above 60, and that should be plenty to be considered an effective reliever. Potentially a dominant one.

Of course concerns about health and stamina raise question marks for De Leon’s future, whether that is with the Rays or elsewhere. But his profile would seem to lend itself to the bullpen.

Now, going from starting to closing is quite a leap and there’s obviously a time in between where De Leon adjusts to working out of the pen, but the transition for De Leon should be fairly swift considering his talents.

Jose De Leon, Other Options

Let’s assume the Rays suddenly get stubborn and don’t test De Leon as a reliever, what are their options at that point?

  1. They can send him back to AAA and build up his innings in 2018, hoping that he can regain enough strength and stamina while sharpening his stuff. They’d hold their breath in hopes that none of the issues noted above re-occur.
  2. The other option would be to seek a trade including De Leon. This would seem like the weakest option of all, as it would be selling extremely low on a valuable asset.

Converting him to a reliever seems like a better option. Not only does it carry less risk, but having De Leon switch to a relief role would also allow him - and the Rays - the chance to get into MLB throwing big league innings asap. The Rays could have him in the pen by end April, even with the possibility of a month to get used to the role in AAA.

Makes sense to me, but then again I don’t have the medicals on hand, and I haven’t passed each option by doctors and De Leon himself.

What I do know, however, is that if he does well in that role in 2017, he’s more likely to get paid now than he would have years ago as a RP, and he’ll become a major asset (on the team or trade asset) for 2018 and beyond.

Final Verdict

What do the Rays and Jose De Leon have to lose by trying him out as a reliever in 2018, possibly handing him the reins as closer come July as the Jays do with Osuna a short while ago? His value is at an all-time low, he’s struggling to remain healthy, and the Rays have enough change over taking place to have him earn a spot.

As we look to younger arms to take up large roles in a time when pens have become all too important for a team to succeed in MLB, we hope a few gems can be found. De Leon has the skills, makeup, and attitude you look for in a closer. He’s not afraid to come after hitters, and he has quality stuff that plays well against any hitter.

Should the Rays give him a shot and he succeeds as setup or closer, they’ll be ready to enjoy years of sub-market price backend of the pen performances.

With arbitration still years away, dreams of being able to settle on a closer getting league minimum has to be enticing for the Rays. If that’s not motivation enough for a team that consistently aims to remain below the $80M mark with their budget, I don’t know what is.

If Alex “the horseman” Colome steps out of the closing role with the Rays, I say give Jose De Leon a shot and you may get an “Osuna Matada” type benefit.

Let’s leave you with just a taste of what De Leon can do, when at full strength (strikes out a familiar face, Wil Myers), and even when not at full strength (strikes out Joey Gallo):