Switch to pitcher proving better fit for Legends' De Leon

mmaloney@herald-leader.comApril 12, 2011 

Jorge De Leon struck out 29 in 28 innings last year for Tri-City.

That Jorge De Leon is with the Lexington Legends this season would, at first glance, indicate that his career is off track.

After all, the South Atlantic League is an instructional league for up-and-comers, and De Leon was here two years ago.

First-glance indicators aren't always accurate, though.

When De Leon played for the Legends in 2009, he was a shortstop. His fielding wasn't much better than his .187 batting average. Over 43 games, he went 23-for-123 at the plate and committed 18 errors.

Now, De Leon is among the hottest prospects on the team.

That's because he has moved to pitcher — armed and dangerous with a fastball that checks in at just under 100 mph.

He made the change last year, at the urging of Houston's special assistant to the general manager/Latin American operations, Felix Francisco.

"They tell me 'you can pitch,' " De Leon said as he sat out rain that led to postponement of Monday's game against Hagerstown. "I say, 'I can try pitching.' "

Assigned to Tri-City of the New York-Penn League last year, De Leon made 12 relief outings before yielding an earned run.

He wound up pitching 28 innings over 23 games. He finished with a 2-1 record, six saves and a 0.64 ERA. He struck out 29 and walked 12, allowing two earned runs and no home runs.

The Astros took note and, last November, put him on the 40-man roster.

"Yeah, I (was) super excited," said De Leon, a native of La Cega Azua, Dominican Republic.

A 6-foot, 182-pound right-hander, he was first signed by the Astros in 2006, by scouts Julio Linares and Sergio Beltre.

De Leon's manager in Lexington is Linares' son, Rodney.

"I've had the fortune of having De Leon since he walked into the (Astros') academy in the Dominican," Rodney Linares said. "He's always had a great arm, but he profiled better as a shortstop. Down the road, his hitting didn't come along, but his arm was still there. ... A guy who can throw anywhere from 94 to 99 mph is a pretty special arm."

The manager has been impressed at De Leon's knack for quickly absorbing lessons.

"He's got a really good aptitude about learning how to pitch. He's only been doing it for a year-and-a-half, and he's already on the 40-man roster," Linares said. "He's got a pretty good slider; slider's got pretty good depth to it.

"He's still not there yet, but when you've got an arm like that and when you can pop your fastball at 98 mph, that helps."

De Leon has worked on all aspects of his profession. That includes language skills, as he has become fluent in English.

He says he has improved since last year in his ability to locate his fastball. And that's not his only pitch.

"I throw my change-up now — it's good for me," De Leon said. "My change-up. My slider. Everything."

In addition to Rodney Linares and pitching coach Dave Borkowski, De Leon turns to teammates and other pitchers in the organization — former Legends Jose Trinidad and Henry Villar among them — for advice.

"I speak 'how to get my pitches better,'" De Leon said. "I'm talking to all the pitchers on the team — what did they do to get this pitch the way they wanted, the breaks and all that."

During the season-opening four-game series against Charleston, De Leon pitched the ninth inning of Friday's 11-7 victory.

"The other day I just needed him because I wanted to have my best guy out there to secure our first win of the year. He was the guy," Linares said. "It's not saying that he's going to go out there and just pitch the ninth inning every night when we have a lead. He's still going to go out there and pitch probably the seventh or eighth, or go from the seventh through the ninth.

"He just needs innings and repetitions — same as he needed when he was a shortstop. Now he needs them as a pitcher."

■ Monday's rainout was rescheduled as part of a Tuesday doubleheader. Both games are scheduled for seven innings, the opener set for 5:05 p.m.

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