Anyone else remember Zach Lee, the expensive first-round draft pick the Dodgers signed back in 2010 to lead their future starting rotations?
I thought so. Certainly, the majority of you do, and probably not too fondly. Lee, a scholarship-worthy quarterback out of high school, signed for over $5 million with the Dodgers at the start of the last decade. The Dodgers looked to Lee, who turns just 29 years old in 2020, to provide a right-handed presence to be coupled with the rising star southpaw Clayton Kershaw.
Instead, while Kershaw thrived throughout the 2010s decade (though some of you may bash him for his postseason performances), Lee struggled to find a home in Los Angeles, and in the MLB in general.
After entering 2011 as the top-rated prospect in the Dodgers’ farm system according to MLB Pipeline, Lee sputtered out. MLB Pipeline predicted he would arrive in the MLB by 2014 as a “front-line starter with a plus fastball and breaking ball,” though that prediction would soon begin to shift.
By the 2012 season, Lee still sat atop the Dodgers’ farm system rankings. The six-foot-four righty was still projected to make it to the Show by 2014, and the front office seemed to want to meet that benchmark as well. After he finished up one full season in rookie ball, the team promoted him straight to Chatanooga for Double-A, which certainly must have been a lot for a young kid fresh out of high school to handle.
After a solid but uninspiring 2012 campaign in Double-A (13 starts with a 4.25 ERA and less than a strikeout per inning), Lee fell to the second spot in the pre-season farm system rankings. By the end of the 2013 season at Double-A, Lee was all the way down to the third slot behind Joc Pederson and Corey Seager. To make matters worse for his MLB chances, teenage star Julio Urias joined the team that year as well, becoming the new face of the future in the starting rotation for LA.
His 2013 season did show promise though, as he lowered his ERA by a full run over 10 starts with the Lookouts in his age 21 season, which boded well for Lee, who had been projected to make his MLB debut the following season.
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Heading into 2014, MLB Pipeline still considered Lee to be an elite prospect, ranking him fourth in LA’s system, but their bullish predictions of the past had certainly been tempered down, instead projecting Lee to be a “solid middle-of-the-rotation starter” instead of the ace that evaluators once thought he would become.
Ultimately Lee failed to make a lasting impact with the Dodgers in 2014. He limped his way through Triple-A, finishing his 27 start campaign with over 150 innings pitched of a 5.38 ERA and 1.53 WHIP.
The uber-competitive Lee wasn’t finished though. He scratched his way back into relevancy, if only for a moment, with a dominant 2015 season at Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he finished up his 19-start season with a 2.70 ERA. Lee’s comeback season earned him Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors amongst Dodgers prospects.
But after a poor debut for the Dodgers in the summer of 2015, and 13 subpar starts at Triple-A in 2016, the front office traded the once hyped prospect to the Seattle Mariners for a light-hitting shortstop named Chris Taylor around the deadline. Taylor ended up sparking the team, and in 2016 and 2017 the long shot from the University of Virginia helped to erase Lee’s shortcomings from the minds of fans with his postseason performances.
From there, Lee went on to pitch eight MLB innings for the San Diego Padres in 2017, before bouncing around the farm systems of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018 and that of the New York Mets this past season. For both the Rays and the Mets, Lee had an ERA hovering just above 2.00 in Double-A, though his Triple-A ERA’s were well over 5.00.
Now, after a 2010s decade filled with adversity, Lee has signed on with the Oakland Athletics on a Minor League deal with an invitation to Spring Training heading into the 2020 season according to RotoWire News on Fangraphs. No matter how he fares, Dodgers fans should certainly be wishing him luck, even if he never did reach his potential while playing for LA.