Dodgers Should Unleash Top Prospect Jose De Leon in Final 2016 Rotation Spot

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 17, 2016

MESA, AZ - MARCH 10:  Jose De Leon #87 of the Los Angeles Dodgers delivers a pitch against the Oakland Athletics at HoHoKam Stadium on March 10, 2016 in Mesa, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Norm Hall/Getty Images

After they lost Zack Greinke to free agency, the Los Angeles Dodgers went after starting-pitching depth like they were doomsday preppers who could see a pitching apocalypse on the horizon.

But in recent weeks, the Dodgers' depth has eroded to a point where I feel obligated to propose a solution to the problem. In 10 easy letters, here it is: Jose De Leon.

That's the name of a 23-year-old right-hander who's a well-regarded prospect, but who also seems to be on the outside looking in at the race to make the Dodgers rotation. Given the state of things, though, the Dodgers aren't in a position to let any candidate go unconsidered.

Scott Kazmir is throwing batting-practice fastballs. Brandon McCarthy is still recovering from Tommy John surgery, and now Hyun-Jin Ryu's return from shoulder surgery has hit a snag. Brett Anderson and flame-throwing prospect Frankie Montas came down with injuries that will sideline them for several months. And though it's supposedly nothing serious, Alex Wood's forearm stiffness still raises a red flag.

This brings us to a summary of the Dodgers' starting rotation: It's almighty ace Clayton Kershaw, Japanese import Kenta Maeda and then a great big pile of "What the hell is going on?!"

In right-handers Brandon Beachy and Mike Bolsinger, the Dodgers do have two decent crutches to lean on. But since Beachy is injury prone and Bolsinger is little more than a swingman, "decent" is as nice as we can be. If the Dodgers want upside behind Kershaw and Maeda, they'll need to do better.

Hence, De Leon.

This isn't an idea that we're conjuring out of thin air. Ken Rosenthal, the Master of Whisperers of Fox Sports, recently suggested that the Dodgers could call on either De Leon or fellow top prospect Julio Urias to help until the injury bug releases its grip on their rotation:

Ken Rosenthal @Ken_Rosenthal

#Dodgers, expecting Ryu-Anderson-McCarthy-Montas in second half, if not before, could use Urias-DeLeon early in season, save innings later.

Between these two, it's Urias who has the sexier name. MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus rate the left-hander as the No. 2 pitching prospect in baseball behind Washington Nationals fireballer Lucas Giolito. Baseball America does one better, naming Urias as the best of baseball's young arms.

But expecting Urias to break camp with the Dodgers requires hitching one's wagon to a long shot. He's still only 19 years old, and the Dodgers made it clear to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times earlier this month that they're not going to rush him.

If the Dodgers put De Leon in their rotation, however, they won't be rushing him.

De Leon is four years older than Urias, and he is more ready for a major league workload. Urias has yet to top even 90 innings as a professional, but De Leon pitched 114.1 innings as a 22-year-old last season. That included 76.2 innings in 16 starts at Double-A Tulsa.

And oh yeah, De Leon is also a pretty good talent in his own right.

That much can be seen in the 2.68 ERA he's racked up over the last two seasons, and it can especially be seen in his strikeout totals. He's struck out 282 batters in 191.1 innings since the start of the 2014 season, a rate of 13.3 per nine innings.

Jose De Leon: 2014-2015

Before anyone can say "Yeah, but," there are some fancy-pants projections at Baseball Prospectus (PECOTA) and FanGraphs (ZiPS) that say De Leon's bat-missing ability could translate to the majors pretty well.

Though the projections differ on how many innings he'll see in the majors—that part's hard to predict for prospects—both think he could strike out close to 11 batters per nine innings. In 2015, that was Carlos Carrasco, Chris Archer and Max Scherzer territory.

This is an idea I'm inclined to believe in, and not just because I'm writing an article trying to sell everyone on De Leon as a grand solution for the Dodgers' pitching woes.

Naturally, De Leon has legit talent to help explain his strikeout mastery. Each of the three lists mentioned above puts him among the top 30 prospects in the game, and they agree that his stuff has benefited from improved conditioning and mechanics in the three years since he was a 24th-round pick in 2013. De Leon's fastball now sits in the 91-94 range, and he also throws a plus changeup and a solid slider.

And there's more to De Leon's dominance than just the quality of his stuff.

His improved command allows him to put his stuff where he wants, and he's also deceptive. Even Keith Law of ESPN.com, who only likes De Leon as baseball's No. 60 prospect, can grant that "hitters really don't see the ball well out of his hand."

That would seem to be the whole idea. Here's a good look at De Leon's pitching mechanics:

It's easy to see that De Leon's mechanics offer hitters quite a few moving parts to keep track of. But if you're also getting the sense that he hides the ball well as he goes into his delivery, that's not just you.

"Part of his success is that he hides the ball really well," High-A Rancho Cucamonga pitching coach Bill Simas told Jake Seiner of MiLB.com last year. "Some people have a knack for that. It's hard to explain. He hides it behind his body until that release."

De Leon further adds to his deception with his throwing motion, which almost makes it look like the ball is exploding straight out of his shoulder.

All these things were on display when De Leon made his spring debut against the Arizona Diamondbacks on March 5. He struck out four in two innings, and Chad Moriyama of Dodgers Digest has the video to prove that he induced more than enough swings-and-misses to deserve those four strikeouts.

Lest anyone think De Leon is perfect, well, he's not. Though he kept striking batters out at a high rate once he reached Double-A last year, he also allowed 11 home runs. That's one more than he'd allowed in his entire minor league career to that point.

But with the Dodgers, that weakness could be downplayed. Dodger Stadium isn't a power-friendly park, and it's not alone in that department within the NL West. Petco Park and AT&T Park are also pitchers' yards, and it so happens the Dodgers will visit both before their home opener on April 12.

If the Dodgers want to play it safe while they wait for their starting rotation to take the shape they planned on, they can go with Beachy or Bolsinger at the back end. Or, they could go for De Leon and wait to capitalize on his upside.

They're going to do it sooner or later. It might as well be sooner.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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