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Waiting in the Wings: Zach Lee

Looking at the next possible option for the Los Angeles Dodgers rotation

Rob Carr

When he was selected, most assumed that Zach Lee was a prop in some weird game that Frank McCourt was playing. You see, Lee was a top talent who fell due to signability concerns (though a cursory look at draft boards at the time show Lee outside the top 50). So when the cash-strapped Dodgers popped him at 28th overall, the consensus opinion was this was a way for McCourt to save money, as Lee was considered such a tough sign. Lo and behold though, the Dodgers did sign Lee at the deadline, for a backloaded $5.25 million deal. It was backloaded instead of a straight signing bonus because Lee was slated to be a quarterback at LSU and teams receive the ability to spread signing bonuses over 5 years with two-sport draft picks. The baseball world was impressed not just that McCourt actually forked over enough cash to sign the talented Lee, but that assistant GM Logan White was actually able to get Lee to sign as well. Lost in this shuffle is that the Dodgers selected a high school pitcher in the sixth round with the intention to sign him for above slot money, as an insurance policy against Lee. When Lee signed, there wasn't enough money to go around for both pitchers and that draft pick went on to attend LSU and get drafted in the first round two years later. You might better recognize him as Kevin Gausman. That's all moot of course, as we can't change history and we don't know that Gausman would have signed either way. Moving on...

Since being drafted, Lee has been unspectacular but hardly bad in any way, posting ERAs in the mid 4s in Hi-A and Double-A, though that's not so bad considering he was young for both levels, and his Hi-A stop was in the California League. Lee is taking a second tour (or completing his first, depending on your view) of Double-A in 2013 and has shown marked improvements in terms of results. Still just 21, Lee has kept his K/9 steady at seven per nine innings, but has reduced his BB/9 by almost a full walk, from 3.02 to 2.15. Lee has done a great job keeping the ball down, allowing only one home run in his 37.2 innings pitched, after allowing six in less than double that number of innings last year. Lee has been less than what many Dodgers fans anticipated when he was handed his ample signing bonus. But it's worth remembering that signing bonuses are not necessarily indicative of talent. That's part of the equation, sure, but so is leverage, which Lee had plenty of as a prep draftee and two-sport athlete. So while the results might not be inspiring, Lee is still a very valid prospect with a mid-rotation ceiling and the slightest possibility of more than that due to his athleticism and a possible (though unexpected) step forward in stuff (a la Casey Kelly a few years back).

Lee's stuff might not blow anyone away, but he's a polished pitcher with four solid pitches and some feel for the craft. His fastball is solid average, arriving in the low 90s with some movement. Lee shows the ability to give the ball some cut or run depending on the situation, and some scouts see the potential for more velo, though that's been anticipated for a bit now, and yet to arrive. Lee's best secondary pitch is a slider that could solidify as plus, but is somewhere between average and plus right now. It's his best chance at a bat missing pitch at the moment, but isn't quite there yet. His curve has similar break to his slider (not usually a good thing), but is a bit softer with more loop to it. He shows good feel for his change up, and it could be solid average or a tick better in time. He's aggressive on the mound, going right after hitters and shows good make up. He's a tremendous athlete, as you might expect from a two-sport star, which allows him to keep his mechanics simple and repeat his delivery well. Lee only turned 21 in September and so is still young for the level. His ceiling has regressed from a top of the rotation arm to something more towards the middle, with the lack of a true bat-missing pitch the major obstacle to front of the rotation status. All is not lost however as Lee's floor is generally seen as quite steady, with a 3/4 starter being a reasonable projection.

The tumult in the major league rotation means that Lee could well be on the verge of a call up, as Matt Magill (against all odds) might not be the answer. Of course Magill isn't the only issue in the Dodgers rotation, with Chris Capuano getting lit up more often than not, and that's when he's healthy. All of this is just idle speculation, but with Lee off to a strong start and possessing great makeup and a competitor's demeanor on the mound, it wouldn't be unreasonable to think the Dodgers might be looking at him for a spot start and maybe more in the near future. The one downside is that Lee is not on the 40 man roster, which is likely why Magill got first crack in the first place. All this said, Lee won't be the greatest fantasy option for shallow leagues, just because the strikeouts aren't going to be there. If you're in a deeper mixed or NL-Only league though, he's a guy that could pile up innings without hurting you much and could even help in WHIP.

Source Material
Baseball America
Baseball Prospectus
Baseball Reference
ESPN/Keith Law
MLB Draft Insider/Chris Crawford

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You can find more of my work at The Dynasty Guru and MLB Draft Insider