The Texas Rangers weren’t shy about adding prospects to their 40-man roster this week ahead of the deadline to do so before the Rule 5 Draft in December, opting to bring on board seven young potential future big leaguers: pitchers Ariel Jurado, Brett Martin, Joe Palumbo, Jonathan Hernandez, and Ronald Herrera, as well as catcher Jose Trevino and super-utility man Isiah Kiner-Falefa. However, there’s one notable prospect name they didn’t add to their 40-man roster to protect from possible Rule 5 Draft selection — and it’s a guy who may actually prove to be an exceptional fit to stash next year on a 25-man roster somewhere in the big leagues: middle infield whiz kid Michael De Leon.
I saw De Leon play a few dozen times in 2016 when the Texas Rangers infielder was in the California League with the High Desert Mavericks, before catching him for a week this summer in late May with the Double-A Frisco RoughRiders, and I can say with confidence across extended viewings over two years that he’s the best defensive middle infielder I’ve seen in the last two years. Still just 20 years old and already in Double-A (he’ll be 21 in January), Michael De Leon is a truly remarkable defender with big league-ready tools right now: good instincts, soft hands, great range, a very good arm, a quick first step, the ability to play across the diamond (including shortstop), and exceptional situational awareness. He’s ready for a big league shortstop gig right now, where he’d immediately be one of the better defenders in The Show.
Offensively, though, he’s more of a project — and that’s no doubt a major reason why the Texas Rangers left him unprotected from the Rule 5 Draft. A switch hitter, De Leon has struggled the last two seasons with questionable and inconsistent swing mechanics, and after a nice bump at the hitter-friendly confines of High Desert in 2016, De Leon came back to earth this year, slashing .223/.257/.284/.541 over 112 games (418 plate appearances) in Frisco, with 16 doubles, two home runs, 18 walks, and 48 strikeouts. His contact skills are there, and his hand-eye coordination at the plate is well above-average, but he makes a lot of weak contact and will be overpowered by better pitchers until he improves consistency in his approach from both sides of the plate and makes some major changes to his mechanics and swing path.
Here are a few of our videos that show some of those offensive issues in Michael De Leon from the last two years:
As you can see, for a variety of reasons — some of which we detailed this summer in a scouting report from Frisco — De Leon has significant offensive issues. That’d seriously affect his output at the big league level should he be selected in the Rule 5 Draft, where big league pitchers will undoubtedly exploit him. But that’s the thing: if the right team selects De Leon next month, the way they ought to use him won’t involve a significant number of plate appearances, and especially not those in high-leverage situations or on an everyday basis.
Because the Texas Rangers prospect is big league ready with the glove right now, it’ll take a deep team with a pretty good idea of their starting lineup and most of their bench to take him on as a last-man-on-the-bench. Ideally it’d be another American League club — one that won’t need to deal very often with pinch hit and double switch requirements — and that can afford to stash De Leon on the bench only to bring him out as a late-inning defensive replacement and pinch runner as necessary.
In my mind, a move like this with De Leon would be similar to what the Los Angeles Angels did with Taylor Featherston a few years ago; Featherston got just 169 plate appearances over 101 games with Los Angeles in his Rule 5 Draft year, but still put up 1.3 dWAR as a defensive replacement and utility infielder on getaway days and in other little-used bench roles. With De Leon, too, a good American League ball club with an already-decent idea of their starting nine and first couple bench slots can afford to take on a legitimate plus defender here with little offensive prowess. To boot, De Leon’s age makes him an attractive piece to keep in the organization and see if you can’t develop past his Rule 5 Draft year and see whether he truly has potential as a starting shortstop/second baseman of the future in another couple seasons.
It’s tough to make guesses about Rule 5 Draft guys considering how many options are out there, of course, and perhaps the Texas Rangers won’t come close to losing Michael De Leon when the event takes place next month, but I think he’s worthy of a mention here because he is so, so advanced in one half of his game to the point where he’s big league ready right now, despite massive holes on the other side of the ball. Perhaps the right organization in the right situation will recognize that and take a chance on stashing him as their 25th man all season in 2018, if only to steal themselves a potential future everyday shortstop should his bat ever develop into what it’d need to be to play 150+ games over the next several seasons. More than anything, Michael De Leon can really, really pick the ball across the infield, and that alone makes him a valuable role player if the right situation finds him.
We’ll see what happens when the Rule 5 Draft takes place on December 14 in Orlando, Florida.
More on Michael De Leon and other Texas Rangers prospects: