I attended Sunday’s game between Tacoma and Albuquerque, the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Albuquerque’s lineup featured two of the Dodgers top prospects: pitcher Zach Lee and center fielder Joc Pederson.
Zach Lee, RHP
Lee is an athletic 6-foot-3, 195-pound right-hander. As a high schooler, he was recruited to play quarterback by LSU, and his athleticism is evident on the mound. He works with a smooth and repeatable high three-quarters delivery. I really liked his arm action; as he delivers, he scapulates and extends his arm well and he’s able to throw all of his pitches without altering his arm slot or reducing his arm speed. He gets long leg extension — which lets him “lean” a little closer to the plate — and he hides the ball well. He throws a four-seam and a two-seam fastball, along with a curve, change up, and although he didn’t use it much today, a slider as well.
Lee is a crisp thrower, though his velocity won’t blow anyone away. His fastball hit 93 mph, but he sat mostly 90-91 with some two-seam life. His curveball was 74-76 and his good ones featured true 12-6 movement. He can throw the pitch for strikes, which is good because it isn’t a swing and miss pitch. He simply doesn’t throw it with much velocity, and hitters weren’t chasing curves out of the zone. Lee’s changeup has arm-side fade and he located the pitch well throughout, never leaving one up in the zone.
I was disappointed to not see more of Lee’s slider. Reportedly, it’s his best secondary offering, but of the innings I sat behind the plate — I watched him a bit from the third base side too — the only sliders he threw were in warm ups.
What impressed me most about Lee was how good he was at staying out of trouble spots in the strike zone. He allowed just two hits and one walk, and arguably made just one mistake, elevating a straight fastball to Cole Gillespie. Gillespie took advantage, roping a double into the gap to generate Tacoma’s only two runs against Lee. Besides that pitch, Lee was able to live on the edges of the strike zone and he showed a good feel for pitching by working both sides of the zone. A couple of times, I thought I caught him attacking the umpire as well as the hitters: more than once, he followed up a strike one fastball with another fastball a hair farther off the plate.
Lee doesn’t have strikeout stuff and consequently most prospect evaluators have been conservative when projecting his major league role. While I don’t want to put too much weight on one outing — particularly a start where he was limited to 69 pitches and didn’t have to turn over the order a third time — from what I saw, I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned out to be more of a No. 3 instead of a back end arm. Lee lives down in the zone, and he spots his off speed pitches well enough that I think he’ll be able to compensate for his lack of strikeouts by limiting walks and generating weak contact.
Joc Pederson, OF
Pederson also performed well. He went 3-for-5 and made solid contact in his four plate appearances. He didn’t have much to hit on the inner half of the plate and did well to line a single to left in the first, following that up with two hard grounders for singles up the middle.
Pederson has very quick hands, which not only helps him generate bat speed but also allows him to let pitches travel deep in the zone. That skill was evident in his first at-bat particularly, when he lined an elevated fastball to left. It’s worth noting that all three of his hits came against left-hander Anthony Fernandez.
In the field, Pederson didn’t have too much to do. He’s a quick athlete, but never had to really run for a fly ball. He did have an opportunity to air out a throw to the plate, and I saw more of a 50-55 arm than the plus tool I’ve read about in scouting reports. Again though, it’s just one throw, so I don’t want to read too much into it. If his range ultimately doesn’t play in center though, it seems like he would be more likely to slide to left field than to right.
Carson Smith, RHP
Smith had a Triple-A debut to forget. He faced seven batters, allowing two hits — one of which can be attributed to Jesus Montero’s extreme lack of athleticism; more on him later — and three walks, two of which were four pitch free passes with the bases loaded. Not what you want to see from a reliever in a blowout.
Part of Smith’s struggles may be mechanical. He has a funky delivery where he starts with a drop and drive but almost pauses midway through; his leg nearly stops and his upper body seemingly twists to the right as he prepares to throw. Between the hitch and a low three quarters arm slot, it’s not hard to see why he’s a little wild (he’s walked 3.6 hitters per game as a minor leaguer).
Smith started the inning throwing in the low 90’s, but after his third batter, he was sitting 87-88. The pitch has strong two-seam bite, but as you might infer from the box score, he struggles to control it. His slider sits in the low 80’s and is clearly a work in progress. Some of his sliders featured vertical drop while others had almost entirely horizontal movement. This was clearly not Smith’s best outing, but it did shine a light on what he needs to work on and helped to answer why the Mariners called upon Dominic Leone — instead of Smith — when a roster spot opened up last week.
Jesus Montero, 1B/DH
For Montero, it’s DH or bust as a major league player. It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s the worst defensive first basemen I’ve seen among professional players. He can’t — or doesn’t want to — bounce off of first when he’s holding a runner, so he’s essentially limited to covering the line with a man on base, and as you might expect, his range is basically limited to what he can reach while standing.
One of the hits Smith allowed was a soft liner about 12 feet to Montero’s left. Most big-league first basemen would have pocketed the ball easily, but Montero only made it about half way there before it bounced and spun softly into right field. For good measure, he also booted a grounder hit right at him, though he did recover in time to get the out. We’ve always known that Montero’s bat would carry him as a professional, and it’s never been clearer that he can’t do anything other than hit.