Spring training isn’t set to begin for a few more months, and the Cincinnati Reds rotation is still a bit up in the air. There have been rumors that the Reds are listening for offers on just about anyone on the roster, including starting pitchers Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo. Even if those two pitchers remain on the roster and in the rotation, it seems that at least one spot is up for grabs at the back end of the rotation. Cincinnati seems to be looking at more than a few options to take over the spot, including José De León, Michael Lorenzen, Tejay Antone, or Jeff Hoffman.
Among those pitchers, José De León may be getting a bit of a head start on the competition. The right-handed pitcher is currently playing winter league baseball in Puerto Rico, and he’s been absolutely dominating the competition. On Sunday he made his third start of the year for Caguas and put together yet another brilliant start. De León allowed just one hit over 5.0 shutout innings that included two walks and seven strikeouts.
After the start on Sunday, José De León now has an ERA of 0.64 in 14.0 innings pitched where he’s allowed just four total hits, one earned run, he’s walked seven batters, and he’s now struck out 27 batters out of the 53 that he’s faced on the year. In the first start of the winter league season the right-hander walked four batters, but over the last two he’s walked just three batters and struck out 19.
Coming off of Tommy John surgery that cost him all of the 2018 season, José De León pitched mostly in Triple-A with the Tampa Bay Rays organization in 2019. His fastball velocity didn’t quite come all of the way back that year, but he was solid in his return to the mound as he posted a 3.51 ERA in 13 starts and 4 relief appearances with Durham that included 73 strikeouts in 51.1 innings. He did walk 27 batters in that span, though, showing a little bit of a higher walk rate than you would like to see.
Cincinnati traded for José De León following the 2019 season and when he came out in the spring before things were shut down, he was throwing harder than he had been in 2019 when he was sitting in the 89-92 MPH range and occasionally touching 94-95. In the spring there wasn’t a lot of time on the mound in games, but he was sitting in the mid-90’s with his fastball when he did get a chance to throw.
The Reds had the righty among the 60-man player pool during the 2020 season, but much of his time was spent at Prasco Park. He did join the big league club for five games. Two of them went well – on August 29th he struck out three batters in 1.2 perfect innings, and then on September 12th he pitched 2.0 shutout innings with a walk and two strikeouts. Three of them are one’s that he would probably prefer to forget ever happened – he allowed eight runs in 1.2 innings on August 6th, four runs in 0.2 innings on August 30th with both of those outings including four walks each, and walked the only two hitters he faced on September 14th.
Control was one of the big things that held back José De León when he was on the mound in the big leagues in 2020. When he was throwing strikes, he found success. But on the days when he couldn’t find the strikezone with any consistency, things didn’t go well in the slightest. The former top prospect for the Los Angeles Dodgers has always been known for a great change up – a pitch he still uses with tons of success. And now that his fastball velocity is back, and perhaps even faster than ever (he topped out at 98 MPH for Cincinnati in the big leagues this year), the stuff is certainly there.
He’s only made three starts in the winter in Puerto Rico, but no one down there has been able to touch his stuff. And in two of the three starts he’s shown plenty of control, too.