Prospect Retro: Jose Lima
Here is a look at the career path of pitcher Jose Lima, who died of a heart attack over the weekend at the far-too-young age of 37.
Jose Desiderio Rodriguez Lima was signed by the Detroit Tigers as a free agent from the Dominican Republic in 1989. He made his North American debut with Bristol in the Appalachian League in 1990, going 3-8, 5.02 with a 64/22 K/BB in 75 innings, allowing 89 hits. At the time, he was regarded as a projectable and athletic pitcher with a live arm who might or might not develop, like untold other young pitchers his age. He had a good K/BB ratio at Bristol, but his other numbers were weak. I was entering grad school in 1990 and not doing prospect analysis for a living, but would give a similar pitcher nowadays a Grade C.
Moved up to Fayetteville in the South Atlantic League for 1991, Lima was used as a swingman, starting seven games and relieving in 11, pitching 58 innings with a 60/25 K/BB and 53 hits allowed. The Tigers thought enough of him that he moved up to the Florida State League late in the season and pitched 8.2 innings of relief for Lakeland, but he got pounded, giving up 16 hits and 10 runs. He got a little attention in the Sally League for his low-90s fastball, impressive changeup, and good strikeout rate, but he certainly didn't stand out as a hot prospect. He would have rated as a Grade C prospect once again.
Lima spent all of 1992 with Lakeland, posting a poor 5-11 record due to bad run support. But his other numbers were much better: 3.16 ERA, 137/21 K/BB in 151 innings, 132 hits allowed. His K/BB and H/IP were excellent, and it was at this point that I became aware of him. He didn't rank on Baseball America's Top 10 FSL Prospects list and wasn't on their Tigers Top 10 list either. But the K/BB caught my eye, and he was beginning to get some scouting attention due to his massively improved control as well as being just 19. A similar pitcher nowadays would get a Grade C+ or B- from me.
Bedeviled by poor offensive and defensive support again in 1993, Lima went just 8-13 for Double-A London, but posted a fair 4.07 ERA and a 138/59 K/BB in 177 innings, allowing 160 hits. He made the Baseball America 2004 Tigers prospect list that year at Number 10, drawing notice for durability, decent control, youth at age 20, and excellent changeup. I would have kept him at a Grade C+ or B-.
Continuing his steady rise through the Detroit system, he went 7-9, 3.60 in 23 starts for Triple-A Toledo in the 1994 strike year, with a 117/48 K/BB in 142 innings, allowing 124 hits. His component ratios were almost the same as they had been in Double-A, with slightly improved K/IP and H/IP marks. He made his major league debut for the Tigers and got ripped, giving up 11 hits and 10 runs in 6.2 innings. He moved up to Number Five on the Baseball America Tigers prospect list, and got a Grade B from Eddie Epstein in the first STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook. I would have agreed with that grade.
Lima split '95 and '96 between Triple-A and the minors, but had problems getting his fastball/changeup combination to work effectively in the majors and usually struggled. Shipped off to Houston for '97, he had a so-so year in relief (5.28 ERA, but a sharp 63/16 K/BB in 75 innings). He became a starter in 1998 and took a huge leap forward, going 16-8, 3.70 with a 169/32 K/BB in 233 innings. Development of a better breaking ball to go with his changeup, splitter, and 88-92 MPH fastball was key. He followed that up by winning 21 games with a 3.58 ERA and a 187/44 K/BB in 246 innings in '99, and was named to the All Star Team.
Possibly burned out by overuse, Lima fell apart in 2000 (6.65 ERA, 251 hits in 196 innings). By 2003 he was pitching independent baseball in Newark, but was plucked out of the junkpile by Allard Baird and the Kansas City Royals, going an improbable 8-3, 4.91 in 14 starts for the Royals as they tried unsuccessfully to hold onto their early season lead. He somehow managed to win 13 games for the Dodgers in 2004, albeit with 33 homers allowed in 170 innings. A return engagement to Kansas City resulted in one of the worst seasons in major league history: 5-16, 6.99, with 131 runs and 219 hits allowed in 169 innings. Lacking other options, the Royals ran him out there for 32 starts despite his complete ineffectiveness. By 2007 he was in the Mexican League.
Lima ended up with a career record of 89-102, 5.26, with an ERA+ of 85 in 1568 innings. He gave up 1783 hits. The composite record is obviously pretty awful, but he did have moments of genuine success: he was quite effective in '98 and '99 for the Astros. Indeed, those campaigns may have ruined him: he threw a combined 480 innings those two years. Despite some occasional flashes of his old self, he was never the same after that, losing some velocity and movement on his fastball. He didn't have a big margin for error to begin with. He still had the good changeup, but it wasn't enough for consistent success.
Lima could be flamboyant, entertaining, and infuriating, sometimes all at the same time. May he rest in peace.