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Dodgers top prospects 2016: No. 14, Zach Lee

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers' "forgotten prospect," Zach Lee, returned to Triple-A and had the going much easier in the friendlier environment of Oklahoma City in 2015. Save for a disabled list spell, Lee returned to his innings-eating groundballing self and even made his major league debut. While he’s ranked above where he was last season, it’s through no fault of his own, as Lee’s prospect status largely remains unchanged, and he should be spending his last year on this list. Whether that means he’s helping the Dodgers or used as a trade piece still remains to be seen.

Leaving the New Mexico altitude for the more pitching-friendly environment in Oklahoma City, Lee’s numbers returned to what we would expect for him as a prospect. Lee helped himself by sharpening his command and keeping the ball on the ground, allowing him to pitch deeper into games and front the OKC Dodger rotation despite modest strikeout numbers. An injury early in the year might have been the only thing preventing him from making more than just a cameo appearance at the big league level.

Despite the improving numbers, Lee’s stuff is more commensurate with a back-of-the-rotation pitcher. Lee throws both a pure four -seam fastball and sinker, both in the low 90s. While the sinker is fairly garden variety, his four-seam actually surprised with significant backspin and rise in his brief major league outing. The sample is small enough to potentially be insignificant, but it’s worth noting that he might have more arm talent than we give him credit. Lee controls the pitches very well and prefers pitching to contact with the sinker in the zone.

Lee has two breaking balls, but has started to prefer the slider. It has the shorter break of the two pitches and almost has the appearance of a cutter. He uses the pitch to attack the bottom of the zone and generate ground balls. The slow curveball has deep break but the pitch isn’t sharp and functions more as a show me pitch early in the count. Neither breaking ball functions as a pure swing and miss pitch, but he knows how to command them in the zone or tempt right handed hitters to chase them low and away.

His changeup has the potential to be a better weapon than it’s shown to have been previously. The pitch is fairly firm and doesn’t show traditional fade, but could be more deceptive for the "rise" it has in comparison to his breaking balls. At the moment, it’s still a fringe average pitch until he learns to command it better.

Dodgers 2016 top prospects: Nos. 21-25 Nos. 26-30 Nos. 31-61 Overview

Lee attacks hitters in the same manner you would would expect from a sinker-slider guy. He pitched to a 50-percent ground ball rate in Triple-A this season and limited both free passes and home runs. It’s hard to see him improving on his strikeout rate given his present stuff, but with improved pitchability with both his four-seam and change up, I think he could hold his major league K-rate around six per nine innings. While he pitched to a sparkling 4.2-percent walk rate (1.51 per nine innings) in Triple A, he will have to avoid the tendency of sinker-slider guys nibbling too much at the major league level to keep hitters off their middling stuff and just trust his overall repertoire.

Lee is a well-built athlete who repeats his delivery quite well despite a longish arm action. He keeps himself on line and creates a downward plane for his pitches and takes full advantage of his long frame. While I haven’t seen enough of him to say this with certainty, he’s athletic enough to field his position well and should be an asset defensively. Despite injury issues last season, there’s little in his delivery or his body to suggest he can’t develop into a workhorse starter who can eat innings so long as he’s effective.

This profile may not be enticing to fans or his upside be high enough to factor in with a team as competitive as the Dodgers, but that does not mean he lacks value. Mike Leake pitched to a 5.58 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, and 51.8% ground ball rate across 192 innings last season, earning 1.7 fWAR and a potentially lucrative contract this off-season. Perhaps a better comparison is Mike Pelfrey, who struck out even less (4.7 K/9) last season but generated a 51% groundball rate and 2 fWAR. As a back-of-the-rotation guy, Lee could be quite valuable to a team like Minnesota or Cincinnati, or a team with a pitching philosophy like Pittsburgh.

At the present moment, until the Dodgers add more depth, Lee’s most value to the team might be in competition for the last rotation spot in spring training. Should the Dodgers acquire more established starting pitching before spring (as they almost assuredly will), Lee’s value will then swing more in favor of a trade commodity. Either way, he’s capable of pitching 160+ innings competently in the major leagues, with the upside approaching 200 innings while limiting walks and fly balls. It’s not sexy, but to some team, it could be worth two+ wins and help stabilize a rotation.

Prospect list

With Wednesday's trade, Jose Peraza (No. 6), Scott Schebler (No. 10) and Brandon Dixon (No. 41) are now in Cincinnati, with Frankie Montas (No. 9), Trayce Thompson (No. 10) and Micah Johnson (No. 17) slotting in. Johnson will be the next prospect profiled, since we are already past his spot.