Is Zach Lee The Most Important Piece of the Padres Rotation?

zach-lee-simbaIt’s arguable that the singularly, most important move made by AJ Preller to date was his ability to turn an obsolete and ineffective Yonder Alonso into Drew Pomeranz, formerly the #30 prospect in baseball.  AJ then turned a half season of improved performance by Pom-Pom into Anderson Espinoza, currently the top pitching prospect in the Padres system, a system loaded with great pitching prospects.  It would be easy to say that Pom-Pom’s value was exclusively derived from a combination of his years of control and his 2016 performance.  Both of those factors are big parts of it, but I also contend that previous scouting and prospect pedigree have influence over future value of players.  After all, a player with a top prospect ranking has more scouts putting more eyes on them and believing in their tools or performance, or both.  Obviously, those tools and performance don’t always result in big league success, but at one point, scouts saw something, and that’s the type of thing GMs can dream on when those players are in post-prospect status.  There can always be the story of “if he could only put it together” combined with a belief that another team’s coaching could unlock that busted prospect’s secrets.  We saw this a little with Cashner last season where, even though his performance didn’t merit what he was traded for, another GM dreamed on his velocity and thought they could turn him into a valuable piece of a pennant race.

Guys like Pomeranz are distinctly different from guys like Trevor Cahill or Clayton Richard.  Cahill or Richard could put up a good first half this season, but there’s nothing to dream on; there’s no room to grow.  They’re guys that assuming they both pitch above their head, and that’s a big assumption, are not nearly as valuable as Pomeranz.  For one, they aren’t young and they are under one year contracts, and two, they’ve topped out and have a long record of performance to evaluate that they aren’t game changers.  That brings us to this season.  Padres brass is analyzing 9 or 10 starting pitchers to make the rotation.  There are young guys like Perdomo and Paul Clemens in the mix, along with veteran inning eaters like Jered Weaver, Richard, Jhoulys Chacin, and Trevor Cahill.  If this were a team trying to win, the veterans would make some sense (I mean, they’d still suck probably).  But they’re not.  They’re a team trying to maximize value for 2019 or 2020.  And that’s where the dark horse for 2017 enters the picture.

Zach Lee was drafted in the first round by the Dodgers and given over $5M in bonus to sway him from taking a scholarship to play quarterback for LSU.  He immediately became one of their top prospects, ascending to #1 in their system according to Baseball America in 2011.  According to BA, Lee was top 20 in the Dodgers’ system from 2010 through 2015, and John Sickels had Lee as the #14 prospect in their system in 2016.  He was in BA’s top 100 rankings in 2010, 2011, and 2013.  Since then, he’s had exactly one Major League appearance that went horribly, then got traded to the Mariners last year and subsequently waived this offseason.  And here we are.

Lee has looked good early in Spring Training, but he doesn’t necessarily have any plus plus pitches in his repertoire.  In a lot of ways, he reminds me of another fallen top prospect Casey Kelly: a great athlete that may not be a great pitcher.  Throwing in the low 90’s, Lee projects as more of a control and command innings eater.  Maybe a #3 in a playoff caliber rotation if you squint just right.  But that’s valuable.  That’s basically Drew Pomeranz.  Then again, he may be more Christian Friedrich, which is valuable for a team rebuilding to have a guy to eat innings, but Friedrich appears like he’ll never live up to the potential that his former top 100 ranking dreamed about.  Lee turned in a great 2015 in AAA, then got beaten up in 2016 at the same level.  He’s inconsistent and doesn’t have the velocity to fall back on.  But with the Padres going nowhere this season, he’s exactly the type of pitcher the team needs to gamble on.  Either he’s going to figure it out under Darren Balsley, produce, and turn into an asset to either trade for more prospects, or he’s going to be a back of the rotation piece once the kids start producing at the Major League level in 2020.  Or, he gets shelled, contributes to some losses while eating some innings, and we never speak of him again.  The upside play makes him too valuable to stash in AAA while Clayton Richard eats innings while not providing any real, lasting value to the franchise.

Lee has the tools and pedigree for someone like AJ, or any other GM in baseball, to project the hope that they can be the ones to solve the Zach Lee puzzle.  And when you’ve got nothing to lose, the 2017 Padres look like the perfect spot to find out what Lee’s got.  This is the kind of experimentation that will build real value for the next playoff contending Padres team, not forcing innings to low ceiling veterans.

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