Jose DeLeon’s big league future looked full of sunshine and palm trees.
That is until last Jan. 23.
That’s the day the Los Angeles Dodgers traded DeLeon, a right-handed pitcher rated as their No. 1 prospect, to the Tampa Bay Rays for second baseman Logan Forsythe.
After making four starts for the Dodgers last September, DeLeon finds himself in a different organization, in a different league and facing an adjustment to a different climate.
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A flexor tendon strain near his pitching elbow caused DeLeon to spend the first six weeks of the minor league season in Florida working at the Rays extended spring training camp. That’s sunshine and palm trees but though not like he experienced in Southern California as a big leaguer last year.
Now DeLeon is with the Durham Bulls, who embark on a road trip through Rochester, New York and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, beginning Tuesday.
DeLeon will make his Rays organizational debut at Rochester. It will come after he catches a 4 a.m. bus Tuesday morning to RDU Airport with his teammates for a flight to western New York, where cool, damp weather is forecast.
“He’s pitched the big leagues so it won’t be overwhelming for him,” Bulls manager Jared Sandberg said. “It will be a travel day and it will be a little colder. So we’ll see how he responds.”
The Rays thought highly enough of the 24-year-old DeLeon to put him on their 40-man roster last March prior to his injury. Inclusion on the 40-man roster gives him an easier path to the Major Leagues should the need arise with the big club.
First, though, he has to get his arm strength built back up with a series of starts in the Triple-A International League.
DeLeon pitched five innings in his last rehabilitation start in Florida before heading north with Durham.
Even pitching on the same day as a pre-dawn wake-up call and several hours of flying won’t dampen his enthusiasm.
“I’m really excited about it, finally getting to pitch at this level with my new organization,” DeLeon said.
DeLeon was 7-1 with a 2.61 ERA, striking out 111 with just 20 walks, at Triple-A Oklahoma City of the Pacific Coast League last season before his September callup to the Dodgers. With Los Angeles, he was 2-0 with a 6.35 ERA in four starts.
Three of those starts came in National League West Division parks — Los Angeles, San Diego and Arizona.
The other came at Yankee Stadium where the Dodgers and Yankees played an inter-league series. The way DeLeon looks at it, Tuesday’s start at Rochester and his Yankee Stadium work will get him prepared for future American League East Division games at Boston, New York and Baltimore with the Rays.
“If you want to be in this division, you’re going to be playing in some games that are pretty cold,” said DeLeon, who was born in Isabela, Puerto Rico. “It’s part of it.”
While working back from injury, DeLeon pitched twice this month for Single-A Charlotte in the Florida State League, covering 8 1/3 innings. He said he’s made steady progress and he feels healthy entering his Bulls debut.
“The only thing right now is getting to build up my pitches,” DeLeon said. “My arm strength is feeling well. Like I always say, I’m getting close to 100 percent.”
DeLeon said he was hitting 92-94 mph on his fastball in recent appearances at extended spring training.
“But I’m not a (velocity) guy,” DeLeon said. “I’m more about throwing strikes and getting people off-balance. You can throw hard. That matters. But if you don’t as long as you pound the zone and get outs that’s all that matters.”