Back in 2014, when pitcher Zach Lee arrived in Albuquerque as a heralded first-round draft pick (2010) of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he and outfielder Joc Peterson, both 22, were the youngest players on the roster.
On April 2 at Isotopes Park, Lee — now 30 — was among the old guys on the roster, someone being looked to by the younger pitchers for his experience. Lee has another new team and new role; he’ll be coming out of the bullpen — and hopeful of advancing to the parent club, the Colorado Rockies.
Considering all that experience, and his 80-75 won-lost record over 10 pro seasons, he could probably get a second job as a travel agent, with all the places he’s played:
• June 2016: Dodgers trade him to Seattle for Chris Taylor;
• December 2016: San Diego selects him off waivers from the Mariners.
• August 2017: Released by the Padres.
• March 2018: Signed by Tampa Bay.
• Nov. 2, 2018: Granted free agency by the Rays.
• Nov. 15, 2018: Signed by the New York Mets.
• Nov. 4, 2019: Granted free agency.
• Nov. 15, 2019: Signed by Oakland.
• November 2020: Granted free agency.
• February 2021: Signed by Arizona.
• August 2021: Released by the Diamondbacks.
• September 2021: Signed by Cincinnati.
• November 2021: Granted free agency.
• February 2022: Signed by Colorado.
It’s undoubtedly not the direction he once hoped his career in the game would go.
He’s appeared in four big-league games: He started a game with the Dodgers in 2015 and went 0-1; he appeared in three games with San Diego in 2017, started once and was 1-0.
His MLB highlights?
“Anytime I was up there. My debut at Citi Field was one of those moments,” he said, of pitching against the Mets. “It humbled me quite a bit. Go out there, have a bit of a rough first inning and then settle in.”
He later had an outing at Coors Field, “where I was able to show worth and show value.”
All told, in all those seasons, which include stints at seven other Class AAA stops in addition to Albuquerque, he has started 227 of the 247 games he’s been in, and has yet to finish a game — and thus has zero saves.
That said, Lee says he’s eagerly looking forward to his role as a reliever in the Duke City.
Smiling and well-spoken, Lee said, “I wouldn’t say it was frustration; I would say it’s gaining experience.”
Back in ’14, he said, “Obviously, being the young guy there, I was very excited to come up here and pitch in a park that packed the house quite a bit — I’ll still try to do that now.”
He said he keeps in touch with Pederson — whose father Stu once played for the Albuquerque Dukes — who has won championship rings, with the Dodgers in 2020 and with Atlanta last fall.
Back in the Duke City, with its altitude and proclivity for adding distance to well-hit baseballs — can that be conducive for a pitcher trying to keep his earned-run average down? Lee doesn’t shy away from that challenge.
He knows the challenge well, and didn’t impress many eight years ago, when he was 7-13 with a 5.38 ERA, and led the ‘Topes staff with 150.2 innings on the mound.
“If you can pitch here, you can pitch anywhere,” Lee said. “And the other aspect, too, is it’s a great indicator of what might be at Coors Field (Rockies’ ballpark in Denver, the Mile-High City), kind of a stepping stone in the right way. If you can throw here and understand how the ball moves here, you’re that much more (likely) to find success at Coors.”
Lee has managed to stay healthy, and “predominantly had success when I’ve been able to pitch down in the zone, been able to get groundballs. … A ball on the ground doesn’t get out of the park.”
His “baseball IQ” has improved, because he’s been smart enough to pick other pitchers’ brains, “how to attack certain guys,” and he wants to expand that knowledge and pass it along to the younger pitchers.
“Baseball is a game of humility,” Lee rationalized. “You know you’re gonna go up there; you know you’re gonna have some success, you know you’re gonna have some failures. And how you adjust to those failures and how you come back from them is what (defines) your career.”
As a starter, he had a routine, knowing ahead when he’d be back out there.
Now his career could be defined by how he faces challenges like coming in with the bases loaded, maybe with the ballgame on the line.
“Even as a reliever, you adapt to a routine,” he said, knowing starting pitchers are on the mound every fifth day, whereas a reliever may pitch two nights in a row and maybe go a week between appearances. “You can look at any big-league bullpen, you’ll see guys warm up or starting to stretch out from the third (inning) through the sixth, depending on their roles, or the seventh or eighth, getting out there, doing what they need to prepare.”
He’s confident, once he knows his role with the ‘Topes, he can adapt a routine.
“For 11, 12 years now, I’ve done it predominantly one way the whole entire time,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge and understanding the other side of it. I also am kinda looking forward to one inning of 30 pitches, rather than seven innings of 130 pitches. There’s pluses and minuses on both sides, so I’ll just try to take it as positive as I can and try to have as much success as I can to have the opportunity to get myself back up (to the big leagues).”