When the Cincinnati Reds acquired José De León in November of 2019 in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, he was coming off of a quality year in Triple-A as he returned from Tommy John surgery. He had posted a 3.51 ERA in 51.1 innings with 73 strikeouts for Triple-A Durham, and also had a 2.25 ERA in three outings at the big league level with the Rays. His stuff wasn’t quite where it was when he was one of the top prospects in the game (he was twice rated as a Top 30 prospect in baseball by Baseball America). His fastball was working in the upper 80’s and low 90’s, but his change up was still outstanding.
With the 2020 minor league season cancelled, José De León spent most of the year with the Reds at their alternate site, but did see some limited action in the big leagues. Things didn’t go as smoothly as he would have hoped with Cincinnati as he posted an ERA of 18.00 in his 6.0 innings while walking 11 batters with 10 strikeouts. Two of his five outings were very, very bad, accounting for 2.1 innings of 12-run, 8-walk baseball.
In the winter, José De León headed to Puerto Rico to pitch in the shortened winter league season for Caguas and he looked very different than he had in his short stint with the Reds during the year. The right-handed pitcher made six starts, including two in the playoffs, and was brilliant as he posted a 1.86 ERA in 29.0 innings while allowing just 13 hits, walking 11 batters, and striking out 53 opposing hitters.
There was a lot of things that helped fuel his winter league performance. Part of it was the uptick in sustained velocity.
“I’ve always been a power pitcher, but I’ve never been a guy who threw in the upper 90’s,” said De León. “But coming back from surgery and being able to hit 97 a couple of times last year, that opened my eyes because I’ve never thrown that hard in my life. Then going to Puerto Rico and repeatedly throwing 96-97 that told me a lot about myself and that I can do it. I think last year I started throwing harder than I’ve ever thrown, so I was having issues finding the strikezone and know that I’m throwing a little harder now so I’ve got to keep the ball in the zone better.”
The velocity is always going to help. Hitters have less time to react to the pitch, and that also tends to help secondary offerings play up for the same reason – hitters have slightly less time to decide what to do and to identify which pitch is coming. José De León worked on more than just throwing hard this year, though.
“The slider I threw before (2020) was not worth it,” said De León. “It was really bad. This year I think I had more confidence with my arm being healthy. I can throw it harder and make it spin better. That obviously helps with the break. And then the cutter, I started working it with the pitching coach there, David Roasrio, and I just liked it. It was something, I wanted something moving to the glove side a little harder than my slider. It just came and I started using it and it was good.”
The Reds new assistant pitching coach Eric Jagers spoke with Fangraphs David Laurila back in January about the slider of José De León.
He had 13-and-a-half inches of horizontal break in 2020, which was up from four inches in 2019. The spin rate jumped up by 400 RPMs.
The improvement in the slider, the improved velocity on the fastball, and a new cutter that gives him yet another look to go along with a plus change up has José De León confident and excited about what’s coming.
“Ever since my surgery, I’ve been trying to find that confidence level that I had from when I was a prospect and I haven’t been able to feel that yet,” De León said. “This year in winter ball I was able to get there. And I think that’s something that every athlete would tell you, that when they reach that confidence level. It’s a thin line between confidence and bragging. You got to be really self conscious to not cross that line, but you got to have confidence in yourself. If you’re here, you’ve got something that belongs. Working in Puerto Rico for the first time in six years helped me with that mentally, with that mental side of pitching. Obviously I was working on a different pitch there with the slider and the cutter. It started working. I’m really excited for what’s coming.”
The competition for the two open spots in the rotation are seemingly up for grabs. Along with José De León, guys like Michael Lorenzen, Tejay Antone, Wade Miley, and Jeff Hoffman are also vying for those spots behind Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and Tyler Mahle. But for De León, who is out of options, any role will be fine by him.
“It doesn’t matter, honestly,” said De León. “I just want to help the team in any role they give me. I prepared myself this offseason to be a starter, because it’s easier to make the transition to the bullpen in case that’s needed. If they want me to be a starter, I’m ready for it. Obviously I’ve been a starter my whole life, so that’s my comfort zone, but I’m more than willing to help the team in any role.”
The first game of the spring is a week from today on Sunday February 28th. The battle for the spots on the pitching staff is going to be interesting. How the final two spots in the rotation play out will also help determine how the bullpen shakes out. With plenty of seemingly quality options for those final two spots in the rotation, it’s anyone’s guess right now as to who will take them and who is going to wind up in the bullpen. But if José De León can go out this spring and throw strikes, his chance to grab a spot in the rotation seems as good as anyone’s.