In November the Cincinnati Reds acquired José De León from the Tampa Bay Rays in a trade. The 27-year-old right-handed pitcher is a former top prospect, ranking as high as the #23 prospect in all of baseball following the 2015 season on the Baseball America list, and he followed that up by rating as the #29 prospect in the game the next year. But things didn’t go well moving forward for the Puerto Rican native. He missed parts of 2017 with a flexor mass injury and then wound up having Tommy John surgery (March 2018) and missing the 2018 season. When he returned in 2019 he found some success in both Triple-A and the Major Leagues.
As we wrote when the trade took place, the velocity hadn’t quite recovered to pre-injury times for José De León. In 2019 he was throwing mostly in the 89-92 MPH range and would touch 95 on a rare occasion during the season. During spring training the Reds didn’t get much time during games for the righty as he made one start and pitched in two games of relief, totaling just 2.2 innings where he walked two and struck out four. Less than a week after the baseball world shut down, Cincinnati optioned De León to Triple-A.
With very little action during the spring, and with the incredibly limited coverage when it comes to things like Trackman in ballparks and radar guns, and even televised games during the games – we didn’t get the best look of the new Reds pitcher before he was sent to the minors. But we did get some information on Sunday about José De León from Fangraphs writer David Laurila.
When I talked to him a few days before camps were shut down, De León told me that he’d been 95-96 in his most-recent outing, the firmest his heater had been in years. Moreover, he didn’t recall ever throwing that hard, that early.
That’s rather significant. There is a very limited amount of data on José De León when it comes to Trackman data – it’s only available to the public from the Major Leagues, and De León only has 23.2 innings in the Majors under his belt – and 17.0 of those innings came in 2016. There is, also one game of data from the World Baseball Classic in 2017 that was played in a ballpark that had the system running. Still, we’re limited to a grand total of nine appearances between 2016 and 2019. In 2016 he topped out at 96.17 MPH against San Diego on September 28th. Since then, in five games, he’s topped out at 94.87 MPH – also against San Diego, this time in August of 2019.
Combine reports of 95-96 MPH in March with reports from last season of 89-92 (as a starter in the minors), as well as limited data showing he had topped out lower than that in the last few seasons in the Majors, and José De León gets a little more intriguing. His best pitch has always been his change up, which could be a plus offering. He also has a slider, but it’s generally been a pitch that’s been behind the fastball and change up by quite a bit.
As a reliever, the question is, where does José De León fit? Obviously the Reds felt that for the time being, Triple-A is where he fits. That very well could speak more to the depth the organization has than anything else. But the report from David Laurila that the righty was hitting 96 in March, when pitchers don’t tend to reach their peak velocity until June or July (in a normal season, anyways), and having the ability to couple that kind of velocity with a plus change up really makes you wonder about how well that could work in 1-2 inning stretches.
With how 2020 may (or may not) play out as far as expanded rosters go, the options used during the spring may not even be in play if baseball returns. With teams now trying to trim their rosters less, things may be written into the rules that allow those options to be rescinded if a team believes a player could now be on the 30-man roster instead of what was believed to be a 26-man roster when moves were made in March.