King George: De La Rosa's Journey From Monterrey To Milwaukee

on 08/26/2004


The man teammates affectionately call "King George" was at the center of two of this off-season's most momentous trades, first helping the Boston Reds Sox acquire ace right-hander Curt Schilling from Arizona and shortly thereafter moving to Milwaukee as a critical piece of the Diamondbacks' offer for slugging first-baseman Richie Sexson. At only 23-years of age, the 6-foot-2 left-hander with a glove-popping fastball has already been involved in transactions totaling millions of dollars, but it is that velocity (along with his sharp curve and deceptive changeup) that the Brewers hope will one day make him a frontline starter making a big league impact of his own.

His name is Jorge De La Rosa, and the acquisition of his golden left arm has provided Milwaukee with another boost to an already burgeoning farm system. Ranked the organization's tenth best prospect coming into the season by Baseball America, De La Rosa has progressed from a keep-your-eye-on-this-guy 16-year old reliever in the Dominican Summer League to Boston's top pitching prospect to one of the premiere left-handed pitchers in all of minor league baseball. His journey from Monterrey to Milwaukee has been circuitous, but regardless of the circumstances that found him with the Brewers, King George is primed to play a key role in the future of the organization.

Signed as an amateur free agent in March of 1998 at the age of 16 by Arizona, De La Rosa was a raw thrower who the Diamondbacks felt could develop into a promising young relief prospect. They sent him to pitch for their Dominican Summer League team and he performed admirably, posting a 1-0 record and 4.50 ERA in 13 appearances. The Monterrey-native struck-out 21 and walked eight in 14 innings, a harbinger of both his future dominance and sometimes-questionable control.

Earning a promotion to the mainland, De La Rosa began the 1999 season with a brief stint at High Desert, the Diamondbacks' High-A California League Affiliate, where he was able to pitch in a warm climate until the opening of the Arizona Rookie League. After two appearances in Adelanto and eight with the Arizona team, De La Rosa was promoted to Missoula of the Advanced Rookie Pioneer League and was roughed up a bit in 13 appearances. At only 17 years of age, his workload was severely limited, and he struggled to stay competitive against significantly-older competition.

Looking to get him some high-level experience, the Diamondbacks leased De La Rosa to his hometown Monterrey Sultans of the Mexican League in 2000, roughly the equivalent of American Triple-A. He was again playing against much more advanced competition, this time in a very hitter-friendly environment, and once again he struggled to keep pace. In 37 outings spanning 38 and two-thirds innings, the 18-year old compiled a 3-2 record and 6.28 ERA. He allowed just under one walk and one hit per inning, but his 50 strikeouts were again indicative of his dominating (if sometimes unpredictable) stuff.

After the regular season, De La Rosa pitched for the Hermosillo Naranjeros in the Mexican Winter League, posting a 3-4 record and 3.00 ERA. His fine pitching helped his team reach the Caribbean World Series and he was named its Most Valuable Relief Pitcher, going 1-0 with a 3.38 ERA in four appearances. At a very young age, the baby-faced Monterrey-native had already established himself as an advanced pitching prospect and his future looked very bright.

What happened next is still a sore subject for the Diamondbacks. The organization had negotiated a three-year working agreement with Monterrey, but that contract expired after the 2000 season. Looking to save the approximately $300,000 it cost to maintain the relationship, the club allowed their agreement to lapse. When the Monterrey ownership learned of the decision, they promised Arizona that De La Rosa would be returned... and then proceeded to auction him to the highest bidder as soon as he was deemed under their control.

The Dodgers, Rockies, Giants, Braves, and Yankees were all aggressive in their pursuit, but it was the Red Sox who came out on top with a Mexican League-record offer of $1.9 million. It was three times the next highest bid, but General Manager Dan Duquette was pleased with the acquisition.

"He's 6-2, 190 pounds, and he has the type of stuff - the type of stuff - like John Rocker," Duquette said, referring to De La Rosa's mid-90s fastball with exceptional movement and his solid breaking pitch. "He's a pitcher who could come very quickly to the major leagues and have a real positive impact on the ball club when he arrives."1

Under the terms of the agreement, Monterrey received 60 percent of the signing bonus while De La Rosa received the remaining $760,000. It was an ironic price, nearly identical to the one Monterrey charged the Diamondbacks in December of 1998 for first-baseman Erubiel Durazo, and it proved an embarrassment to the Arizona front office.

"He was our property," General Manager Joe Garagiola Jr. said at the time. "A time came when we returned him to Monterrey, and they then sold his contract to the Red Sox."2

But it was the Diamondbacks' penny-pinching - they needed to cut their 2000 budget by $10 million - and what amounted to a clerical error that cost them the young southpaw.

In his first three professional seasons with the Diamondbacks, De La Rosa racked up 84.1 innings and demonstrated very high strikeout totals accompanied by work-in-progress control.

Year  Level         G      IP    ERA    SO   BB    H   HR
1998  DSL/Rookie   13    14.0   4.50    21    8    8   --   
1999  Rookie        8    14.0   3.21    17    3   12    1
      Rookie+      13    14.2   7.98    14    9   22    2
      A+            2     3.0   0.00     3    2    1    0
2000  Mexican/AAA  37    38.2   6.28    50   32   38   --

His peripherals were remarkably impressive, especially given his age compared to that of his competition. Accumulating significantly more strikeouts than hits allowed is no easy task regardless of level, but the 18-year old accomplished the feat in the Mexican League against hitters with experience in the big leagues and high minors.

Year  Level         IP   WHIP   SO/9  BB/9 SO/BB  HR/9
1998  DSL          14.0  1.14  13.50  5.14  5.14    --
1999  Rookie       14.0  1.07  10.93  1.93  5.67  0.64
      Rookie+      14.2  2.11   8.59  5.52  1.56  1.23
      A+            3.0  1.00   9.00  6.00  1.50  0.00
2000  Mexican/AAA  38.2  1.81  11.64  7.45  1.56    --

In any case, Arizona's loss was Boston's gain, and they invited De La Rosa to Spring Training and assigned him to Single-A Sarasota. In twelve appearances, he posted a 1.21 ERA and racked up 27 strikeouts in 29.2 innings, surrendering only 13 hits and no home runs. When the weather got warmer, De La Rosa was promoted to Double-A Trenton where he finished out the season with much less success. In 29 games spanning 37 innings, he went 1-3 with a 5.84 ERA, allowing significantly more hits and walks than he had at Sarasota while striking-out significantly fewer batters.

De La Rosa made an excellent impression on the Red Sox, though, and his off-season was quite eventful. After pitching well for Hermosillo in the Mexican Winter League, he was added to the Red Sox 40-man roster along with infielder Luis Garcia and right-handers Josh Hancock and Anastacio Martinez, who remains Jorge's closest friend. ^1^6

More importantly, the Red Sox decided to convert De La Rosa to a starting pitcher, citing a dual desire to maximize his value and help him develop a third pitch that would serve him well regardless of his future role. The change necessitated a repeat trip to Single-A Sarasota, and De La Rosa was again impressive. In 23 starts, he went 7-7 with a 3.65 ERA and was named to both the Florida State League All-Star Team^2 and the World Team in the Major League All-Star Futures Game.^3

He made a brief appearance in the Futures Game and needed only one pitch to induce an inning-ending double-play grounder, helping the World Team to a 5-1 win over Paul Molitor and the US Team at Miller Park.

After enjoying the mid-season festivities, De La Rosa was promoted in early August to Double-A Trenton and made 4 starts, posting a 1-2 record and 5.50 ERA. The Red Sox named him Sarasota's Pitcher of the Year, an honor that capped off a season full of accolades and solidified De La Rosa's future (at least in the short-term) as a starter.

The off-season was again spent with Hermosillo in the Mexican Pacific League. Founded in the late 1940s, the MPL is a very well-respected Winter League whose rosters consist of Major Leaguers at both ends of their careers as well as minor leaguers, rehabbing in-their-prime big leaguers, and Mexican (Summer) League regulars. It is one of the most competitive of all the Winter Leagues, on equal footing with American Triple-A, and consists of eight teams in northwestern Mexico playing a schedule of 68 games.

"That's a big plus about being in these leagues," Dereck Bryant, De La Rosa's Winter League Manager, told Bill Mitchell. "You've got kids that are in A ball playing against legends. All of these people can only help you, and it's great being around them."

De La Rosa agreed, noting that teammates like Angel Moreno, Gil Heredia, and Fernando Valenzuela "have helped me a lot. Just using all of my pitches in different counts and not just sticking to one."3

"This is high caliber baseball," Bryant added. "I would compare it to AAA ... maybe a little better, maybe 4-A."4

De La Rosa went 2-3 in 22 games (five starts) for the Orange Growers, posting a 4.46 ERA while striking-out 48 in 42 and a third innings. Walks were again a problem, as he handed out 29 free passes, but De La Rosa surrendered only 26 hits, good for an opponents' batting average of .176.

It was back to Double-A to open the 2003 season, this time with the Red Sox' new affiliate in Portland, Maine. In his third stint at the level and second since becoming a starter, De La Rosa excelled, going 6-3 with a 2.80 ERA in 22 games while substantially improving his peripherals.

He was again chosen to participate in both the Futures Game and his league's All-Star Game, and on both stages the 21-year old thrived. At Chicago's US Cellular Field, he retired the final two batters for the World Team in a 6-5 loss, striking-out one. He added a scoreless inning in the Eastern League All-Star Game, with a walk to Grady Sizemore the only blemish on an otherwise perfect frame.

Despite being limited to five innings per start to protect his valuable left arm, De La Rosa earned a promotion on August 10th to Triple-A Pawtucket. In his first stint at that level on the US mainland, he made five starts and went 1-2 with a 3.75 ERA, fanning 17 and walking 12 in 24 innings of work.

"We're being conservative with him strictly because of the amount of innings he threw last year between his time in the States and his time in Mexico over the winter," Red Sox Director of Player Development Ben Cherington said. "He's been really strong and if it were up to him, he'd be pitching a lot more."5

"With him, it's just about commanding two things, his pitches and himself," Double-A Manager Ron Johnson added. "With George, thus far he's done outstanding. He's gone from being a reliever two years ago when we first got him. Now he's able to go out and understand what he has. So if he does give up a run, he doesn't lose his confidence or his exposure. He realizes he's always a pitch away from getting out of an inning with the stuff he has."6

"He has come a long way in beginning to show mound composure and an ability to compete when things go wrong; a bad call, a bad play, a hitter hitting a good pitch, whatever the case may be," Portland Pitching Coach Bob Kipper agreed. "He's been able to separate that and focus on the next pitch."7

In three seasons with the Red Sox, De La Rosa continued his impressive progress. After another solid year of relief work in 2001, he made a relatively seamless transition to the starting rotation in 2002 and 2003.

Year  Level         G      IP    ERA    SO   BB    H   HR
2001  A            12    29.2   1.21    27   12   13    0
      AA           29    37.0   5.84    27   20   56    4
2002  A            23   120.2   3.65    95   52  105   10
      AA            4    18.0   5.50    15    9   17    0
2003  AA           22    99.2   2.80   102   36   87    6
      AAA           5    24.0   3.75    17   12   27    0

His main problem remained walks, something he issued about once every two innings. His biggest strength, however, was still the strikeout; in 329 innings, he fanned 283 batters, a ratio of 7.74 punchouts per nine innings.

Year  Level         IP   WHIP   SO/9  BB/9 SO/BB  HR/9
2001  A           29.2   0.84   8.19  3.64  2.25  0.00
      AA          37.0   2.05   6.57  4.86  1.35  0.97
2002  A          120.2   1.30   7.09  3.88  1.83  0.75
      AA          18.0   1.44   7.50  4.50  1.67  0.00
2003  AA          99.2   1.23   9.21  3.25  2.83  0.54
      AAA         24.0   1.63   6.38  4.50  1.42  0.00

De La Rosa was again honored with his team's Pitcher of the Year Award, this time for his contributions at Portland, and with his rise to the top of Boston's minor league system came endless trade rumors. When potential targets of the Red Sox were discussed, De La Rosa's name was inevitably one of the first to surface; Kelvim Escobar, Frank Catalanotto, Bartolo Colon, and Billy Wagner were all part of discussions that included De La Rosa.

The Red Sox instructed De La Rosa not to play Winter Ball following the season, something he had done every year since 1999. The Hermosillo club, which also included big leaguers like Vinny Castilla and Erubiel Durazo, undoubtedly missed having him, as De La Rosa proved a valuable contributor in each of his previous four seasons in the MPL.

Year    G    IP    ERA    SO   BB
1999    8   9.1   9.64     6    7
2000   22  21.0   3.00    23   11
2001   31  30.0   2.70    43   14
2002   22  42.1   4.46    48   29

"The Red Sox told me not to play Winter League and to rest because they had plans for me in the organization the next year," he explained to Jesse Sanchez. "Looking back, I guess they wanted me to rest so they could trade me."

And that's exactly what they did, shipping back to the Diamondbacks as part of the deal that netted Boston the object of their persistent affection, Curt Schilling.

"My agent told me there was a chance I was going to get traded," he said about the deal that also included Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, and Michael Goss. "It was not something I expected and even less back to Arizona because they let me be a free agent. I thought that was strange that they would want me back."

It turns out they didn't, as De La Rosa was included in another trade less than a month later. This time, his destination was Milwaukee.

"It all happened so fast," he told Sanchez during Spring Training. "I was in Mexico watching TV when I heard about the first trade and a reporter from Mexico City told me about the second trade. But I like it a lot here. We are all treated very well and there is a lot of opportunity here, more than most. It's up to me to take advantage of it."

It was Brewers' GM Doug Melvin that took advantage of his slugging first-baseman, Richie Sexson, spinning him off to the Diamondbacks for six players. De La Rosa, however, was the critical piece, a young left-hander that would immediately join the ranks of Milwaukee's top prospects in the high minor leagues.

Milwaukee invited him to Spring Training, and despite some rust and an injury to his groin, the 22-year old made a wonderful impression on his new coaching staff. In three games spanning six and two-thirds innings, he allowed six earned runs on nine hits (including two homers) and two walks, but he struck-out four. De La Rosa attributed some of his struggles to a lack of Winter Ball.

"Before Spring Training, I had not thrown in almost six months and my mechanics are not where I want them to be," he said. "My arm is great, but Billy Castro is helping me with the mechanics part."

Castro, the Brewers' bullpen coach and a former big league reliever with the Brewers, Yankees, and Royals, also reached out to the young Mexican, whose English is very limited, helping him get acclimated to his new surroundings.

"I know, being Latin, about the language problems that come with not knowing English first-hand," Castro said. "A lot of stuff gets lost in the translation. A lot of the times, you come here as a player and you try to learn the game and follow rules and regulations, but because of the language sometimes you fall behind. I think, if you find somebody who speaks your own language, you feel more comfortable and don't have to worry about the translation part."

As far as De La Rosa's stuff goes, Castro could barely contain his enthusiasm.

"I told him he has as good of stuff as Teddy Higuera at 23," he said, referring to one of De La Rosa's boyhood heroes and perhaps the greatest left-hander in Brewers' history. "His fastball has better movement than Teddy at that age, but Teddy had the experience, and he was able to throw the curve for a strike with any count and he was able to spot the fastball."

"He has a good arm and good pitches," Castro added. "He just needs to relax a little more. Being a young guy, coming to a Major League camp and a new organization and trying to impress, I think he gets excited. But he will be fine. He's a smart kid, and he listens."8

Castro wasn't the only one impressed with De La Rosa.

"He has a very nasty changeup and a very nasty breaking ball," Manager Ned Yost told Drew Olson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He is going to be a very good major-league pitcher."9

Before that could become a reality, however, the Brewers decided that De La Rosa needed another stint at Triple-A and assigned him to Indianapolis, where he joined a talented Indians' pitching staff that included Ben Hendrickson, Victor Santos, and Mike Adams, among others. In his debut on April 11th, he held the Richmond Braves to one run on three hits and two walks in three and a third innings, striking-out four. Future-teammate Russell Branyan batted third for the hometown R-Braves and walked and struck-out in two plate appearances against De La Rosa.

From there, the just-turned 23-year old's season included more failures than successes. Over his first eight starts, De La Rosa accumulated a 1-4 record and 6.67 ERA, striking out 32 and walking 21 in 28 innings of work. He was scratched from a start on May 26th with what was described as left shoulder tendonitis, a malady that forced him to the 7-day disabled list.

"It's nothing real major, just a precautionary move," Farm Director Reid Nichols told Adam McCalvy of MLB.com. "It had been bothering him his last couple starts and we didn't want to be short of pitching in the next few days."10

Well, a few days turned into a few weeks and De La Rosa was not back on the mound until June 21st. Working on a strict pitch count, the left-hander allowed one run on one hit in an inning and two-thirds against Buffalo. Remarkably, he struck-out the side in order in the first, setting down Grady Sizemore, Johnny Peralta, and Russell Branyan, the first three batters he had faced in almost exactly a month. The second inning didn't go as well; after a fly-out and another strikeout (this time of Alex Escobar), De La Rosa hit Brandon Phillips with a pitch and surrendered a double to Mark Little.

The rest seemed to do De La Rosa good, as he pitched two and two-thirds scoreless innings in his next outing and looked to have turned the proverbial corner. He made five starts in July and posted excellent strikeout and walk totals, but an abundance of home runs and a conservative workload resulted in a bloated 6.74 ERA.

Month   G  GS   W-L    ERA     IP   SO   BB    H   HR
April   4   4   0-2   9.22   13.2   15    8   15    2
May     4   4   1-2   4.42   18.1   17   13   15    2
June    2   2   0-0   2.08    4.1    7    2    4    0
July    5   5   1-1   6.74   13.1   21    6   20    4

Continuing his solid pitching, De La Rosa made two starts in August and held opponents to four runs on eight hits in twelve innings, striking out 13 and walking three. When injuries to Chris Capuano and Matt Wise left Milwaukee without enough arms to make it through the weekend, De La Rosa got the call and was promoted to make a start at home against Florida on August 14th. He became the third Brewers' starting pitching prospect to debut in 2004, joining Chris Saenz and Ben Hendrickson, and the 23-year old was tasked with beating Dontrelle Willis and the Marlins in front of 40,213 fans on Jim Gantner Bobblehead Night at Miller Park.

It wasn't exactly an easy assignment, but De La Rosa gave it an admirable effort. Over five innings, he allowed four runs on six hits and two walks, a reasonably solid outing, all things considered. Florida's runs came in the first and the fifth; in between, he retired the side in order in the second and third and allowed only two singles in the fourth.

The trouble started right out of the box as De La Rosa's nervousness was palpable. After Juan Pierre grounded to third, De La Rosa walked Luis Castillo and surrendered a single to newly-acquired catcher Paul Lo Duca. A pair of wild pitches then advanced the runners 180 feet, scoring Castillo and putting Lo Duca at third with only one out. Miguel Cabrera drove him in with a sacrifice fly, but De La Rosa retired Mike Lowell on a ground-out to end the inning.

After cruising through the next few innings, De La Rosa got into another jam in the fifth. Alex Gonzalez singled and advanced to third on a sacrifice by Willis and a ground-out by Pierre. With the runner at third and two outs, De La Rosa had a chance to get out of it without incident. Instead, Castillo came through with a double to the gap in right-center and, after Lo Duca walked, scored on a single by Cabrera. King George again got Lowell to end the inning, however, and the bullpen took over from there.

"For his major league debut, I thought he did all right," Manager Ned Yost said about his pitcher's performance, which was undoubtedly marred by the Brewers' 11-1 defeat. "He battled. His command was fairly good after the first inning. After that, he kind of rolled right along -- until the fifth."11

Considering the circumstances, however, De La Rosa's debut went well. Regardless, he was optioned back to Triple-A the following day where he was to get regular work until rosters expand in September.

His future role is still undetermined, but King George isn't worried about whether he starts or relieves.

"It doesn't matter... I just want to get up there and play in the big leagues."

And that's something with which the Brewers - and their fans - can enthusiastically agree.


Notes and References

  1. "Shelves Depleted As Red Sox Go To Free-Agent Market," Providence Journal-Bulletin, Byline Sean McAdam, November 20, 2001.
  2. "Budget Cuts Cost D-Backs Promising Left-Handed Reliever," Arizona Republic, Byline Pedro Gomez, April 10, 2001.
  3. "De La Rosa Knows He's Still A 'Work In Progress'," Top Prospect Alert: Arizona Fall League Report, Byline Bill Mitchell, Available Online, December 30, 2002.
  4. "Spending The Winter In Mexico," Top Prospect Report: Arizona Fall League Report, Byline Bill Mitchell, Available Online, December 23, 2002.
  5. "--," Sports Ticker, Byline Joe Barbieri, Available Online, August 19, 2003.
  6. "World Futures Notebook: Toronto's Rios Learning To Relax At The Plate," MLB.com, Byline Thomas Harding, Available Online, July 13, 2003.
  7. See note 5.
  8. "De La Rosa Happy For Chance: Pitcher To Begin '04 With Triple-A Indianapolis," MLB.com, Byline Jesse Sanchez, Available Online, March 18, 2004.
  9. "Appleton West Grad Living A Dream," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Byline Drew Olson, February 26, 2004.
  10. "Notes: DL Claims De La Rosa," MLB.com, Byline Adam McCalvy, Available Online, May 26, 2004.
  11. "Willis Gives Up One Run In Seven Innings," Associated Press, Available Online, August 14, 2004.

Special thanks to The Baseball Cube, , and the Hermosillo Orange Growers for providing the statistical data used in this article.

Bill Batterman is a writer for Brewerfan.net. You can get in touch with him by sending email to batman@brewerfan.net.