Spring Training Preview: Zach Lee

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With the Super Bowl concluding on Sunday, sports fans now turn to the NBA, college basketball…… and their favorite big league teams getting ready for the season in either Arizona or Florida.

The Padres open up camp in a week, and it is shaping up to be an eventful one. With so many roster spots open for competition, spring training games are going to be a sight to behold.

A lot of recently acquired players and minor league signees are going to get the chance to perform for a spot in the big leagues. There are quite a few of them; but perhaps none of them have the prospect pedigree of starting pitcher Zach Lee, who the Padres acquired off waivers from the Mariners on December 13th.

Zach Lee, who will turn 26 in September, is a former top 100 prospect; which is no surprise. A.J. Preller loooooooves acquiring former top prospects who never panned out with their former clubs. Lee joins Luis Sardinas, Tyrell Jenkins, Christian Villanueva, and Christian Friedrich (among others) who started out their professional careers hot, but fizzled into irrelevance, only to be found by the Padres’ brass.

Lee, a 2-sport standout at McKinney high school, was recruited by, and signed with, LSU to play football as well as baseball. LSU’s head coach (at the time), Les Miles, recruited him pretty hard as a QB, and Lee was planning on taking his talents to the SEC and playing in Baton Rouge. He was pretty freakin’ good: Take a look for yourself. The man could throw the ball.

At the time, the Texas product had no intentions of skipping out on a two-sport college career. Even after he was drafted, the expectation was that it would be tough to get him out of his LSU commitment. That is, until the Dodgers called last-second and offered him a contract north of five million, which was impossible to pass up. The football dream was gone, and Zach Lee was headed off to begin a professional baseball career.

The right-hander performed well enough in his initial season to be ranked as a top 100 prospect by Baseball America (#89) following the 2010 season. A solid 2011 saw him rocket up the prospect ranks to #62. It seemed like it was all but a given that he would quickly ascend to becoming a solid starter for years to come as a L.A. Dodger.

Credit: USA Today Sports

After the 2011 season, though, Lee struggled. Before his ninth start in 2012, Lee was sidelined by a strained groin and placed on the disabled list. Sandwiched around that injury was a whole lot of bleh. In 120.1 innings, the 6’4″ right-hander gave up 129 hits while bouncing around between Single-A and Double-A ball. Despite this, Lee was only 21 years of age at the time, and his ERA (4.25) & FIP (3.83) weren’t too bad.

Lee stayed in Double-A Chattanooga in both 2012 and 2013, kind of remaining stagnant. Nothing really stood out too much, and Lee fell off nearly all prospect boards. The Dodgers front office finally decided to promote him to Triple-A in 2014. The promotion did not go as planned, as Lee gave up 177 hits in 150.2 innings. He also gave up 18 home runs and only struck out 97 hitters while walking 54. The Dodgers reportedly thought his struggles were a mental thing; that Lee thought he deserved to be starting for them in the big leagues. Like any young prospect, Lee also was the subject of many trade rumors; something that could have hindered his performance as well.

Whatever it was, Lee got over it and rebounded in 2015 en route to a really solid year, but it was not without some hiccups. In 19 starts, Lee put up a 2.70 ERA and sliced his FIP by nearly two, to a tune of 3.35. He struck out 81 while only walking 19 in 113.1 innings. That was the good. The bad? Lee was placed on the 7-day DL halfway through the season with an arm scare. He reportedly felt tingling in his fingers. The Dodgers called it a “minor injury.” He also appeared in the big leagues for one start against the New York Mets. He was roughed up pretty good: 4.2 IP, 11 H, 7 ER, 1 BB, 1 HR. Even with the ups and downs, 2015 was thought to be a step in the right direction for Zach Lee.

Fangraphs’ KATOH listed him as the sixth ranked prospect in the LA system headed into 2016.  Everything was back on track, right?

Credit: Getty Images


Lee had a horrendous 2016. Although he stayed healthy, he gave up 95 hits in 73.2 IP en route to posting a 4.89 ERA in the first half of the season for the OKC Dodgers. He was subsequently traded to the Mariners for Chris Taylor in a deal in which the two teams swapped disappointing prospects. With Seattle’s Triple-A club (Tacoma), Lee struggled mightily, going 0-9 in 14 starts. He gave up 94 hits in 74.1 innings, only striking out 50 while walking 24. Lee gave up 22 home runs (a career high): 11 in the Dodgers organization, 11 in the Mariners’ organization (hey, at least he was consistent).

Zach Lee is now trying to save his baseball career in the Padres’ organization. Can he do it? Should he be given the opportunity to start?

The answer is unclear. Looking a the Padres’ rotation options, Lee has a chance. It would make much more sense to give him a chance over pitchers like Jarred Cosart and Paul Clemens, who have kind of showed that they are never going to be anything more than a fringe #5 guy in the big leagues. In a year like the Padres are going to have in 2017, trying out young players, why would you not give the 25-year-old a chance to show what he’s got? Not only that, but ZIPS projects him as being one of their top 5 projected starting pitchers (brace yourself: this is more sad than it is impressive):

Zach Lee, at the very least, is a strike thrower. He is only two years removed from pitching really well in Triple-A, as a 23-year-old. That is about all I can positively say about him right now. Adding to that, of course, you have the old “Darren Balsley could fix him!” adage that seems to follow any starting pitcher to San Diego.

At the same time, Lee has really mediocre stuff. His fastball won’t blow anyone away, and the rest of his stuff (as evidenced by his stats) clearly has diminished through the course of his career. His minor league strikeout rate was horrid. FanGraphs cited an inconsistent curveball and changeup as reasons for his demise. The Dodgers and Mariners basically saw all that they needed to give up on him. He’s only 25, so it’s hard to write him off…. but at the same time it is hard to get remotely excited about the way he has developed.

Could Zach Lee possibly become a successful soft-tossing right-hander? Maybe. It’s tough to do in an era of great hitters so used to seeing 93-95 each night. Could he get hit hard in spring training & end up filling out the El Paso rotation? Maybe. Would I rather see him starting for the Padres than someone like Jered Weaver? Absolutely.

This is Zach Lee’s best chance to revive his career. He is in an organization that has a developing MLB team which is willing to be patient if someone struggles. Lee is 25, so that struggling will have to stop some time soon if he wants a chance… but perhaps giving him a legitimate chance (although it may be a long shot) to start the year in the big league rotation will be all Zach Lee needs to revive a once-promising career.

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