Image credit: (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
TEMPE, Ariz. — Jose De Leon’s stuff, finally, is all the way back.
De Leon sat 90-94 mph on his fastball with a tight, mid-80s slider and swing-and-miss, mid-80s changeup in his Cactus League debut for the Reds on Tuesday. He missed his spot a few times and surrendered two runs in two thirds of an inning to a fully loaded Angels lineup that included Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, Shohei Ohtani, Justin Upton and Albert Pujols, but the quality of De Leon’s stuff had the onetime top prospect riding high.
“My arm feels amazing to be honest,” De Leon said. “It’s February 25, so I couldn’t execute the elevated fastball today, but it’s still early and it’s good to get the feet wet. The positive is I was throwing strikes early in the count, I was getting guys to two strikes quick and my arm feels amazing.”
De Leon, 27, ranked as high as the No. 23 prospect in baseball entering the 2016 season with the Dodgers, but injuries sidetracked him. The Puerto Rican righthander missed time with shoulder inflammation in 2016, battled a flexor issue and lat strain in 2017 after being traded to the Rays and succumbed to Tommy John surgery in 2018. De Leon’s fastball dropped to 86-89 mph at one point, down from the mid-90s he showed at his peak.
The Rays traded him to the Reds last November for cash or a player to be named later. Now a reclamation project, De Leon is fighting for a spot on the Reds pitching staff.
“He’s here for a reason: because he can pitch,” Reds manager David Bell said. “He’s talented. It’s not like he’s coming out of nowhere. He’s done it. He’s shown it before. We’re lucky to have him and look forward to seeing him more this spring.”
The stuff De Leon showed in his Reds debut more resembled his peak than at any time in recent years.
He struck out David Fletcher, who had the lowest swing-and-miss rate of any major leaguer last season, swinging over a changeup to lead off the game. He progressively ramped up his fastball velocity as he loosened up and struck out Upton looking at a 93 mph fastball on the outside corner. His slider drew foul balls and called strikes, and he got Trout to swing and miss through a fastball as well.
“A swing and miss to Trout on a fastball, that’s something I’ll remember forever,” De Leon said.
Ultimately, he faltered when it came time to put hitters away—he walked Trout, hit Ohtani on the elbow and left pitches up that Rendon and Pujols smacked for singles—but on the whole, he came away encouraged.
“I don’t think I’ve felt like this before,” De Leon said. “The work we put in the offseason, I can feel it. I’m feeling light on the mound. I’m feeling with that extra effort at the end that I can whip it.
“The confidence that I’m getting with my arm, now that I know it’s completely healthy, that’s something that’s going to be a plus because I didn’t have that last year. Even though I was feeling good, it was the first year out of surgery so you’re always a little hesitant to whip it and throw it max effort. But now, this early in the spring, I was throwing max effort and I didn’t feel anything at all. That’s the good thing I’m taking out of this outing.”
De Leon has an uphill battle to climb with the Reds beefing up both their rotation and bullpen in the offseason.
But now that his stuff is back to form, he has a fighting chance.
“He has good stuff,” Bell said. “Real good changeup. I want to see him more. He’s a talented pitcher and real good kid. We’re looking forward to seeing him more.”