The Dodgers want Brian Dozier, the Twins terrific second baseman. The Twins, rightfully so, want a lot for an excellent player due just $15 million in total over the next two seasons. Based on public reports, the two sides have agreed that young RHP Jose De Leon would go to Minnesota if a deal gets done, with the current stalemate surrounding what else the Dodgers would have to add to De Leon to get the Twins to make the swap. But while the Twins should obviously extract as much as they can from Andrew Friedman, they’d probably also be wise to not pass up the opportunity to acquire De Leon, since this might be their last chance to get him for a while.
Let’s start with the standard caveats; De Leon is a pitching prospect, and that makes him inherently risky. More concerning, he’s a pitching prospect who missed time last year with arm soreness, so, yeah. His most notable statistical comparison is Rich Harden, whose career could be described as frustrating. If the Twins swap Dozier for De Leon and stuff, there’s a pretty significant chance that they’ll have traded a low-cost All-Star second baseman for a guy who could spend a good chunk of his Twins career on the disabled list. Pitchers break. It’s just what they do.
But the Twins are in a position where they should probably take some risks, because they’re going to need some of these high-risk, high-reward bets to pay off in order to get them back in contention. And De Leon looks like a pretty high reward guy to land in a trade for a player who probably won’t still be in Minnesota the next time the Twins are contenders.
When Eric Longenhagen wrote up De Leon on his Dodgers list, where he ranked him as the team’s #4 prospect, he noted that De Leon has mid-rotation stuff. The lack of a dominant breaking ball is often cited as an issue, and as a primarily fastball/change-up guy, it’s easy to see De Leon having a home run problem, since his profile is reminiscent of guys like James Shields. But I think history has shown that these fastball/change-up guys are often undersold coming up the ladder, and there are reasons to think that De Leon could be a lot more than just a mid-rotation starter.
At this point, you know about the minor league numbers, which are silly. De Leon absolutely destroyed minor league hitters the last few years, with the 33% strikeout rate he posted in Triple-A last year representing the lowest mark he put up at any level since the start of 2014. As Jeff noted in writing about De Leon’s big league debut, his minor league performance made him a very unique player. I’m now going to steal a chart from Jeff’s post, to reinforce the point.
De Leon misses bats, but he also was constantly pitching ahead of hitters in the minors, because he pounded the strike zone with regularity. That kind of track record is why the projections are so high on him, with Steamer forecasting him for a 3.39 FIP in 2017, putting him in the same range as guys like Chris Sale, Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and Chris Archer. That’s not a long-term forecast either; that’s what Steamer thinks he might be right now.
But of course, he’s available in trade because he didn’t pitch like those guys when he got the call last year. The Dodgers gave him four starts down the stretch to see if he could be part of their playoff roster, and he was kind of terrible. By ERA (6.35), he was atrocious. By FIP (6.97), he was even worse. By xFIP (5.20), he was still pretty awful. He walked too many guys and posted a below average strikeout rate, so the only thing he carried over from his Triple-A line was his home run problem.
So, the projections think he could be terrific, but to buy into them, you have to put a lot of weight on minor league numbers and very little weight on big league numbers. That’s a tough sell. Except, if you dig into his Major League performance a bit more, there is some real reason for optimism there as well.
As we all know, results data requires pretty big samples to become useful, but process data becomes informative a lot more quickly. De Leon’s results data is bad, but there’s at least one piece of process data that comes from his big league stint that should encourage the Twins to make a deal. Let’s take a look at a leaderboard.
|Jose De Leon||80%|
The hardest pitcher in baseball to make contact on in-zone swings was a knuckleballer, which makes plenty of sense, since knuckleballs are weird. The other two guys to post in-zone contact rates below 80% were aces, including the NL Cy Young Award winner. The best pitcher in baseball is at 81%, tied with another knuckleballer. Then there’s Darvish, who has some of the nastiest stuff in the league, followed by a couple of highly-ranked prospects, including one of the game’s best young arms.
And in the middle of that pack is De Leon. Again, 17 innings, so don’t rush to crazy conclusions or anything, but it’s really hard to fake the ability to miss bats with pitches in the strike zone. Guys who can do this are almost always really good, unless they can’t throw strikes, which is Mike Montgomery’s problem. Montgomery might be a warning sign that not every pitcher who misses bats in the zone is good, but his 45% Zone% as a starter is by far the lowest of any of the guys on this list; all of the other guys are up around 50 to 55%.
And De Leon’s minor league numbers suggest that strike throwing isn’t really going to be a problem for him. This is a guy who has consistently pounded the strike zone his entire career, and even in his big league struggles, he threw more pitches in the zone than Darvish did. We shouldn’t be too concerned about De Leon’s ability to throw strikes, and even in his lousy big league audition, he showed an elite ability to miss bats on those pitches.
So let’s go back to that Shields comparison. Back in 2006, Shields ranked as the #10 prospect in the International League, with Baseball America writing the following about him.
No pitching prospect in the league did more to raise his prospect stock than Shields, who was relatively unknown before his a solid Double-A season and strong Arizona Fall League showing in 2005. He breezed through the IL in just 10 starts before becoming a mainstay in Tampa Bay’s rotation. Projected as a mid-rotation starter or setup man, Shields pounds the bottom of the zone, throwing strikes and inducing ground balls. He challenges batters with an above-average 89-93 mph sinker and keeps them off balance with his plus changeup. He uses his curveball, an average pitch at times, to set up his other offerings.
The groundball thing is different, since De Leon is a flyball guy, but the repertoires were basically the same, as was the expectation of this kind of pitcher being a mid-rotation guy. And when Shields got to the big leagues after destroying Triple-A hitters by striking them all out and not walking anyone, he struggled a bit in his rookie year, running a 108 ERA- thanks to a more normal BB/K ratio and some problems when hitters made contact.
But then, in 2007, Shields stopped walking guys again, and even without an elite strikeout rate — the lack of a breaking ball makes it harder to put away good big league hitters — Shields put up a four win season, the beginning of an eight year run as one of the game’s best pitchers. By controlling the strike zone, Shields showed you don’t necessarily need a dynamite breaking ball to pitch at the front of a rotation, even if a fastball/change-up combination means you give up some dingers sometimes.
Shields, of course, is just one data point, and not every pitcher like this turns out as well. But De Leon is the kind of guy whose stock could skyrocket next year, especially if he comes to camp healthy and wins a job in the Dodgers rotation. It’s not hard to imagine a guy with his strike throwing skills and ability to limit in-zone contact taking off like Shields did in 2007, and quickly becoming a guy the Dodgers just don’t want to trade.
In swapping Dozier for De Leon (and whatever else they can get), the Twins would be turning a relatively safe asset into a risky one, but De Leon probably has more upside than one might think just based on his repertoire. Change-up guys who miss bats without a big breaking ball are often underrated as prospects, and if the Twins are confident he’s beyond the arm problems that limited him in 2016, he could quickly become their best pitcher.
Even if they’re not sold on his long-term value, giving him 160 innings next year to see what he can do could help them create an asset that would have even more value in trade next year than Dozier has now, and swapping a short-term second baseman for a long-term pitcher could give them the ability to make a pair of trades that significantly boost their organizational standing, like the Braves did when they went from Jason Heyward to Shelby Miller to Dansby Swanson and friends.
I get why the Twins are driving a hard bargain for Dozier. He’s really valuable, thanks to his performance and his contract. But De Leon is exactly the kind of guy the Twins should be trying to add to their organization, and if they wait too long, he might not be available again until he’s out of their price range. The Twins are in a position where taking risks makes sense, and De Leon is a risk worth taking.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.