With the season slipping away a bit, Archie Bradley is on the minds of many Diamondbacks fans, and for good reason; he’s one of the very best pitching prospects in the game right now. Jeff Wiser and I sat down (metaphorically speaking) to hash out our thoughts on his development and possible promotion. Spoiler alert: we didn’t agree on everything, but there are a few things on Bradley you can take to the bank.
RPM: Jeff, we’ve kicked around the issue of Bradley for a little while now. Before we get to the possible promotion issue and the stage of his development, it probably makes sense to get one thing out of the way: you can look at this in terms of the D’Backs’ needs for this season, or what’s best for Bradley, or both. Could be some overlap, but do you agree?
JW: Well yes, but in terms of major league needs, the season is just about lost at this point. Two of our three best hitters, Ross and Chavez, are going to miss all or significant parts of the remaining season. We were down to about a 15% chance of making the playoffs before we lost those two bats. The odds have to be slim-to-none now. Bradley won’t change that.
RPM: Not sure I’m completely on board with you there. I mean, we’re not here to debate the team’s chances this season, but if you assume for the sake of argument that there’s a chance they’re still in it, I think he’d help the club compete this season. Whether or not that’s good for Bradley or for the 2014 prospects of the team, I’m not sure, but I do think he’d help. I think of Dylan Bundy, a pitcher drafted out of high school in the same draft as Bradley, who came up in September last year to pitch in a couple of relief innings before getting shut down for the year. Even if he stuck with just the fastball and curve, I think he’d get guys out now.
JW: Ok, but even in terms of helping in 2013, I’m not sure he helps us, or that there’s a good Bundy comparison there. Guys like him and Matt Harvey taint us. Most highly-anticipated debuts go nothing like his. Take Allen Webster, for example. He had better strikeout and ground ball numbers in AAA than Bradley does in AA. When he made his anticipated debut for Boston, he got crushed. Hitters don’t chase in the majors, so the walks go up and strikeouts go down. Balls in the zone get punished. Webster’s stats in AAA would suggest big league success but it hasn’t materialized yet. Why should be think that Bradley’s numbers in AA would allow him to skip a level and dominate big league hitters?
RPM: Well if I can just jump in there – I never heard of a ceiling on Webster as anything higher than a number 3. So that’s one difference right there. I agree that some guys’ stuff fools minor leaguers much better than major leaguers, but Bradley already has two plus-plus offerings in the ridiculous fastball and hammer curve. Guys like Webster, who have a few pitches that project as above-average but nothing dominating, maybe they’re not a great comparable.
JW: Sure, but we can also take a look at Taijuan Walker, who also projects as an ace. Walker is three days younger than Archie, and they’ve been on similar development paths since being drafted. Walker was much more raw when drafted but has better raw stuff than Bradley. Walker dominated AA for a full year and a half before heading to AAA Tacoma. Guess what? His numbers are down in AAA as more experienced hitters are laying off and putting better swings on the ball when they swing. And at 21, who can fault Walker? He’s still way ahead of the curve and once he makes adjustments to AAA, as we all fully expect to happen, he’ll be ready for the big leagues. Archie will need to get hit around the PCL a little bit before he’s ready for the majors, plain and simple.
RPM: Ok, fair. I mean, Seattle did make the choice to have Walker skip High-A, just because it’s not a great environment for developing pitchers. I’m not saying the PCL or Reno specifically is a bad place to develop Bradley, exactly, but there’s maybe a lesson in there, too. And anyway, I just want to introduce this idea: there’s no rule that says that he needs to get promoted a single time. If we’re talking an Earl Weaver approach, and breaking him in as a reliever, which is what I’d suggest in the circumstances, you’d make it the plan from the get-go to let Bradley get his feet wet in a controlled relief environment, and then leave open the option of having him start games at Reno to open the 2014 season. I do believe in this method, and I think we can get back to that. But I know one thing that we’ve talked about in the past is how the nature of a pitcher’s remaining development can make this kind of plan make sense or not. I mean, whether it’s a guy working on a third pitch, something you wouldn’t want him to do in front of major league hitters who know it’s coming, or someone working on control, where promoting aggressively would be less of an impact on the development game plan.
JW: Part of why I’m an advocate of promoting the kid to AAA for another five starts or so before shutting him down is that with Bradley, it’s a little of both. The command was the biggest flag for Bradley entering the season, and it still escapes him at times. Just like all young pitchers, even the very good ones, command is usually the last thing to arrive. His command disappears on occasions, leading to walks and hits. He walked seven and struck out three over only five innings on July 27th while also allowing a home run. On June 22nd, he gave up seven hits, including two homers, in only five innings while giving up six earned. Yes he has his dominant outings, but there are signs that he’s still raw at times and if those results can come from Double-A hitters, think what will happen when he’s facing a major league lineup. The Marlins don’t count.
RPM: Poor Marlins. But you were saying, it’s not just command.
JW: Right. There was plenty of discussion about Bradley’s changeup entering the season. It was as a “distant third pitch” according to Marc Hulet of FanGraphs, and several others echoed the same sentiment. His fastball/curveball combo is impressive, but without the change, he could find himself in a tough spot. Look at Tyler Skaggs.
RPM: Well… with Skaggs, it’s a bit more of his fastball regressing, I think. Suddenly hovering in the 90 miles per hour range, I think he just can’t keep the same pitching plan. He used to be able to rely on that pitch more, even earlier this season. But we’ll get some more f/x data from his relief tour, I assume. But I’m getting off point. What you’re saying is that maybe Bradley could still use more development time for the changeup, but I’d like to suggest that it doesn’t really matter whether that time comes in five more starts now, or in five starts at the beginning of 2014. Breaking him in could have its own benefits. But the point is – he’s at 131.2 innings this season, after throwing 136 last season. I’m sure they want him in the 160 inning range, especially if they’re hoping him to start a full season next year. As you said earlier, those 30 innings could come in five more starts, finishing right at the end of the AA or AAA season in early September.
JW: Right, that’s what I’d suggest, finishing out the year as a starter, but possibly at AAA.
RPM: Well I’d like to suggest an alternative. Why can’t those last 20 or 25 of those innings come in relief? Start him again in AA, maybe once more after that, and then he’d have some bullets left over for the major league bullpen. In seven weeks, throwing three times a week, he could definitely help the big club. I’m sensitive to your points a moment ago about his changeup, but even if he had to can that for the last 20 innings this season, can that really hurt his development, especially since he can work on it in the spring? There’s no rule saying he can’t try it up here, but he wouldn’t keep throwing it if it wasn’t working. And I absolutely think he can work on control and command pitching to major leaguers right now. I think we may have to agree to disagree there, but I think we’re at least on the same page about an innings limit. The three options are to let him get the last five starts at some level in the minors, or let him get those starts in the majors, or let him finish out the season in relief. If it’s the last one, we’ll know within a start or two, because there’s no reason to bring him up for just a couple of innings. But either way, it’s not the second of those options, I would guess; he either starts in the minors or relieves in the majors.
JW: Well I agree that starting in the majors is not a great idea. The one thing that neither of us can accurately know is Archie’s ability to deal with failure and adjust. Mental toughness is something for Bradley, his coaches and the organization to weigh. Aside from a bad outing here or there, he’s never had to deal with failure, especially not over a prolonged period of time. What happens if he gets hit hard in three starts, then gets sent back down before getting the whole season to reflect? Does it fuel him to work harder and hone his craft? Does he dwell on the failure on the big stage and let doubt creep in? We can’t determine this, but we have to trust that the organization is making their current decisions for a reason and the mental fragility of a 21-year old may or may not have something to do with that.
RPM: Good points. The organization clearly has a better understanding of Bradley the person. And in terms of not starting in the majors this season, I’d add that he couldn’t work on the changeup. Which is a problem, considering that few major league starters can succeed with just two pitches. At least in the bullpen, he can pretty much can it and possibly succeed without it.
JW: Sure. We’re also on the same page on an innings cap, except that I’m an advocate of promoting the kid to AAA and having him reach the 160 or 170 inning mark there as a starter. After five starts or so at the highest level of competition he’s seen, he’ll have plenty of things that he can work on over the winter. Let him continue to work, add weight and strength, then turn him loose in spring training. Keep the carrot in front of the horse and tempt him with the idea that he has a legit shot at the Opening Day 2014 roster if spring goes well. If not, you send him back to AAA, let Super Two pass and call him up in June. Hopefully our guys having down years will bounce back and Archie can then contribute to a real pennant race as this one has pretty much passed us by.
RPM: Well there you have it, folks. Two options: start him once or twice more, then try him in the major league pen for the rest of the season; or let him play out the rest of the season in the minors as a starter to work on both command and his third pitch. What do you all think? Feel free to weigh in below in the comments, or catch Jeff and I on twitter at @InsidetheZona and @OutfieldGrass24!
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