De León adopts do-it-all attitude during camp

Revamped slider, increased fastball velo have led to righty racking up K's

March 12th, 2021

Almost exactly three years to the day since he underwent Tommy John surgery, José De León is keeping pace with his competition this spring -- even those who are on his own team.

De León arrived to Spring Training as a candidate for a rotation that has one spot up for grabs. The bullpen looked like the likelier landing spot for the 28-year-old right-hander, but halfway through the Cactus League, De León is building innings as a starter and impressing the Reds with a reworked, snappier slider and increased fastball velocity.

This is all to say that he’s still in the mix to land a spot in the rotation, as one of five in a pool of candidates that includes several veterans with more Major League experience.

So the task is a difficult one. But it’s not insurmountable. 

“He's working really hard to break through so he can continue to do that on a consistent basis,” manager David Bell said. “We love that we have him. We really believe that he can be a big part of this staff for many years to come.”

On Wednesday against the Royals, De León threw three innings for a second outing in a row, allowing two runs while walking three batters and striking out eight. He has 14 strikeouts over three appearances this spring. That’s plenty to stay in the mix for a coveted starter role.

“Yesterday was a good day,” De León said. “I was able to throw the most pitches I’ve thrown in a bit. It’s a process, it’s a good thing that we’re -- in my case -- building me up now.”

Spring Training can be tricky for pitchers like De León. While the exhibition season is a time for veteran pitchers who do not have to worry about making the team to get their arms cranking again and fine-tune their pitches, De León has no such luxury. Every trip to the mound is an audition, and with decisions often made in the final days of March, there’s no time to let up -- or let his guard down.

De León has several things working for him. He’s reached a comfort level with his slider that he hasn’t had since his surgery in March 2018, and with that comfort comes confidence. An uptick with his fastball velocity during winter ball the past offseason has also helped in that area. Many inside the Reds orbit have predicted that the right-hander may be in for a big year.

De León is feeling his way through a lower arm slot than he’s applied in the past, but even with the tinkering, he’s not straying too far from the familiar. There’s too much on the line right now.

“Yesterday I was playing with [the arm slot] a little bit. But I don't like to do it too much,” he said. “In my case, I don’t have a spot yet, so I have to make pitches. I’ve got to get outs. Yesterday I did it, but I also walked three guys, and that's something that I have to work on.

“Finding that ability to make adjustments on the fly. … I have to make adjustments on the mound. If I throw two pitches in a row that I didn’t like, I’ve got to be good enough to make the adjustment right there.”

Where De León fits in to the big picture will be determined toward the end of the month. If he wins a rotation spot, he’ll have surpassed pitchers with more time on big league mounds, including Michael Lorenzen and Jeff Hoffman. If De León ends up in the bullpen, he’ll be an asset as a hard-throwing option late in games.

As far as worrying about it, De León will leave that to others.

“You’ve got to control what you can control. And right now, it's putting the work in in the weight room, running, conditioning … to do whatever they ask me to,” he said. “That's my main goal here. Be versatile. If they want me out of the 'pen, then the ‘pen it is. If they want me to start, I'm ready to start.”

What else? 

“If they want me to hit then … uh, maybe find somebody else,” he joked.

“We love having him,” Bell said. “He's a great person, great teammate. He works really hard, he's very talented. It's a great combination. We're just letting him pitch and finding ways to support him and let him reach his potential.”