It's not often that pure relief prospects crop up on top-whatever lists, but Jose Leclerc has both the arm strength and diverse arsenal to make it to the major leagues, provided he becomes more consistent. Signed by the Rangers in 2010 out of the Dominican Republic, Leclerc spent two years in the Dominican Summer League before jumping to the Low-A Hickory Crawdads this summer. With the 'Dads, Leclerc pitched 59 innings as a reliever, posting a 3.36 ERA. While that may not look particularly list-worthy, his arsenal and improvement make him worth the look.
First, to dissect that fairly pedestrian ERA. Leclerc started in April, his first month of stateside ball, with a 7.82 ERA over 12.2 innings pitched. He then lowered that frankly terrible number almost every time out, posting an ERA of 2.12 from May 1st on and a staggeringly low 1.01 average from June 14th to the end of the season. Leclerc's results may not be a complete anomaly for a minor league pitcher, but that sharp of a drop across the season reflects major improvements throughout the season.
A major part of Leclerc's rapid success is owed to a gradual increase in velocity during the season. His four-seam fastball was 91-93 on opening night, with a jump to 96 a few appearances later, and his changeup was only 5 mph slower at times. Though there are a few possibilities as to why his pitching was so hittable in April, an uptick in velocity, along with his greater reliance on an emerging changeup, can help explain the later drastic improvements.
Leclerc throws three pitches regularly, a 93-96 mph fastball that tops at 98 mph, a developing changeup that consistently works at 83-87, and a 73-77 mph curveball that went from loopy to potentially wipeout across the season. While his particular three-pitch mix looks like a potential starter's arsenal, the effort in his delivery and previous relieving history point toward a career as a late-innings reliever. Make-up wise, he's reportedly an aggressive pitcher, unafraid to challenge hitters. He's willing to pitch over the inner half of the plate, and throws all three of his pitches to both left and right-handers, though with varying results.
Leclerc's results against right-handed batters have been sensational, as he has struck them out 33 percent of the time while only allowing a .272 OBP. Against lefties, he had a 25% K-rate and allowed an OBP of .402, perhaps a result of the fact that none of his three pitches run away from LHBs. Finding a way to induce weaker contact from southpaw batters would give Leclerc the potential to become a dominant reliever.
Though solid numbers could earn a promotion to Frisco, Leclerc will most likely spend his age-20 season in Myrtle Beach, a reputed pitcher's paradise. However, a year on the shore isn't a bad thing: Leclerc doesn't turn 21 until December 2014 and would still be ahead of schedule if he sniffed the majors at 22.
In this age-20 season, the best thing he could do for his prospect status would be to find further consistency in all aspects of his pitching. If he lives up to the potential shown in his first full season, he could find a place as a fireballing closer, similar in some ways to Neftali Feliz.
Kate Morrison is a recent Baylor graduate currently working as a freeelance writer. She likes minor league ballparks, music and the nickname 'Roogie.' That last one will be explained in due time. You can follow her on Twitter at @unlikelyfanatic.