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40 in 40: Chase De Jong

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After a rough 2017, De Jong is hoping to bounce back and prove he’s ready to stick in the big leagues.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, Chase De Jong: One of the many Mariners starting pitchers who are trying to shake the perception that they’re a fringe prospect. MLB Pipeline still lists this 24-year-old right-hander as a prospect, but he’s ranked 26th in the M’s razor-thin organization. He’s right between Darin Gillies and Nick Wells. But before a disappointing 2017 season for the righty that dulled his hype, De Jong was rapidly raising his profile.

Before the M’s acquired him, De Jong looked like a pretty promising arm. He was drafted by the Dodgers in the second round of the 2012 draft and rocketed up through the minors, reaching Double-A by his age-22 season in 2016. That year he was named the Texas League Pitcher of the Year when he registered a 2.86 ERA in 25 starts with 125 strikeouts in 141.2 innings. He credits his success that year to a conversation he had with Greg Maddux:

A few weeks into last season in Double-A Tulsa, Greg Maddux, who was hired earlier that winter as a special assistant, showed up in the Drillers’ clubhouse.

Maddux talked to De Jong extensively about key pitching points — pitch selection and studying hitters’ tendencies in every at-bat.

“There were developmental things I learned last year that were key for me to keep pitches off the barrel of the bat, and learning the cutter was one of them. That is how I went after left-handers,” De Jong said. “It changed my whole philosophy and how I attacked hitters going into games.”

That season really put him on the map, and De Jong was targeted by the Mariners late in the following offseason. After being acquired from the Dodgers for infielder Drew Jackson and right-hander Aneurys Zabala in early 2017, De Jong pitched between three levels and made seven MLB appearances due to the rash of injuries to the pitching staff.

Once he got into Seattle’s organization, he ran into some trouble. Always a fly ball pitcher, De Jong started to see more of his pitches leave the yard. After giving up just 15 home runs in 146.2 innings in 2016, he surrendered 21 dingers in 112.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2017. In 28.1 big-league innings last year, De Jong compiled a 6.35 ERA with 13 strikeouts and 13 walks.

De Jong certainly faced a significant setback in 2017. It probably didn’t help him that he was constantly being shuttled between leagues, teams, and coaching staffs. His home run problem might be partially attributed to last year’s fly ball revolution -- although the baseball in the minors wasn’t modified to the degree that the MLB one was. But Kate noted toward the end of last season that De Jong had started to make improvements thanks to Tacoma pitching coach Lance Painter, who encouraged him to make some mechanical tweaks to his delivery. His confidence also grew as he got more comfortable with his style of play.

For De Jong, feeling better about his outings and like he’s finally executing pitches the way he wants to, regardless of results, is helping him buy into the process. “My first half is not something to be proud of,” he acknowledges, “but it’s something to learn from.” He’s invented an award for himself—Second Half Pitcher of the Year—and is chasing that in his mind. “I understand that’s not a real award, but that’s what I’m going for.” Also helping De Jong buy in: the fact that he knows that he fits the model of the organization, which he says brings him confidence. “All I have to do is be me. I don’t have to be anybody else. I don’t have to be this blue-chip prospect—obviously, I try to be the best I can, but I know when I rear back it’s not going to say 100 miles on the radar gun. But I know what I can do is get outs. I know that what I do can help out a team. I know that it’s really nice to be in an organization that values what I can do.”

De Jong is becoming comfortable in who he is. He’s a student of the game who’s already shown a willingness to make changes. He’ll likely start 2018 in Tacoma where he can polish his game and try to earn a second shot in Seattle.

De Jong will be just 24 years old next season, and already has some big league innings under his belt. He’s similar to the likes of Marco Gonzales, Ariel Miranda, and Andrew Moore in that he’s a young starting pitcher who didn’t get a lot of prospect hype, but should get the chance to prove himself. Jerry Dipoto has cleared space in the starting rotation for the youngsters to get some innings. It’s likely he’ll be in line for some too.

You can add De Jong and probably right-hander Max Povse to that list of guys. If one or two of those guys develop, the M’s will be able to capitalize on their talent and retain them as a major part of the core going forward. Given De Jong’s past success and current youth and controllability, you shouldn’t count him out of the mix. He’s ready for a chance to prove that last year was a fluke.