It’s no secret that the Diamondbacks have a collection of some of the most highly coveted pitching prospects in the league. Aaron Blair, Touki Toussaint, Braden Shipley are all names prospecting fans salivate over, and leading the crew over the past few seasons has been the huge right-hander Archie Bradley. He throws an easy mid-90s fastball with a two plane curve; a deadly mix with his changeup that flashes signs of brilliance. In 2013 he reached Double A at only 20 years old, keeping an ERA under 2.00 with a strikeout rate of 23.5%, a great mark in a hitter’s environment.
Yet, as goes the saying, there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. Even one who seemed as bulletproof as Bradley did has his problems. His walk rate reaches double digits at almost every level. He has an issue controlling his elite stuff, relying on over-aggressive young hitters trying to earn a promotion who end up chasing everything.
We see this type of pitcher all the time. Top prospect lists tend to focus on ceiling, which is something that Bradley and his peers have a tall one. The issue is with the floor. Pitchers who prey on free-swinging minor leaguers have hard adjustments to make when they move up, as hitters have learned to lay off their cheap tricks. Working backwards, backdoor breakers and mixing pitches is more common at the major league level.
The wheels were barely holding on as he pushed through on stuff and not pitching IQ, and they finally fell off in 2014. Injuries, poor performance and an eventual decline of his electric pitch mix at the end of the season really had Bradley believers in a bind. I’ll admit to be one of them after taking him two years in a row in multiple leagues, thinking there was no way he didn’t have huge impact in Arizona. But here we are in 2015, and his general manager thinks he still needs more time in the minors.
But even as his shine fades, there could be a change for Bradley that could thrust him back into the elite, or at least in the conversation. Even though the starting rotation desperately needs depth, Bradley could provide huge value out of the bullpen. Switching to the ‘pen can work wonders for pitchers who have trouble finding the zone, and his high strikeout rate and ability to induce ground balls would be of huge value. Not to mention pitchers usually experience an uptick in velocity when they only have one inning to shut down their opposition. That could have Bradley touching triple digits, not something many young guns can boast.
Addison Reed is the current holder of the closer’s spot for the Dbacks, but it’s easily possible for Bradley to supplant him. Reed struggles with fly balls, and therefore gives up bunches of dingers in the warm summers at Chase Field. Brad Ziegler could be next in line, but his funky delivery cohorts have always had problems overcoming an apparent submarine bias from managers.
It would hardly be a new move to send this top starting prospect to the bullpen, as pretty much every elite closer began his career as a starter. Mariano Rivera, Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, the list goes on. Even top starting prospects have gone almost straight to the bullpen the past few years, like Neftali Feliz and Trevor Rosenthal.
A move to shorter work could help re-ignite Bradley’s once promising future, and fortunately Bradley has already started putting in the effort on his half as well. He explained how he ended up being his own worst enemy last season:
“There were so many expectations,” Bradley said. “I was so concerned with what everyone thought and what the media thought, instead of really worrying about myself and what I could control. I was so caught up in making this team and making that fifth spot [in the rotation], I kind of lost sight of the more important goals in front of me — like what I could do every day to get better.”
He’s taken his mistakes and is working on rounding out his mental game. Doing so has him looking more controlled and alive as ever, according to early reports. He could maximize his potential by using it in short bursts out of the bullpen. His longer outings have gotten messy with control and mechanics. Where it can be disappointing for someone you peg as a number one starter and Cy Young contender to be moved to relief duties, there are a couple of factors here making this move even better – the stuffed pitching pipeline already present in the organization, and the lack of a dominant bullpen ace.
Where this is more speculation than news, it’s important to consider the possibility tied to Bradley. The more he struggles with control and if his injuries persist, a move to the pen will come. Drafting him as a starter (a repeated mistake of mine) is not seeing the bigger picture. His upside is limited by struggles tied directly to starting. A move to shorter outings from the bullpen could help him return to ace form, this time as a closer.