Look, there’s plenty of competition for the fifth starter race, but at the end of the day, that spot’s going to Robbie Ray. Competition is fine and all, but if everyone remains healthy, the job is his. He earned last year and he’s pitched very well this spring. It’s a pretty easy call as far as I can tell. Tyler Wagner should head to AAA and wait for the call. Zack Godley probably does the same. But what the heck does the team do with Archie Bradley?
Given the volatility of pitchers and how often they’re hurt, sending him Reno seems like a bit of a gamble. If you subscribe to the notion that virtually all pitchers have a finite number of bullets to fire before some kind of injury inevitably pops up, utilizing Bradley for the benefit of the major league team in some capacity seems imperative. If you don’t subscribe to that school of thought, well, you can pretty easily argue that he’s still one of the team’s 12-most talented pitchers and could add value to the squad. It’s hard to say in earnest that he doesn’t belong on the team.
Additionally, it seems at this juncture that Bradley really needs to face major league hitters for his own development. He was skilled enough to earn a job on the Opening Day roster last season, and while no two years are alike, the same talent is still in there. He’s logged nearly 190 innings at AA and nearly 50 at AAA. Reports out of fall instructs, and now spring camp, suggest that he’s throwing harder and sharper than he did at the start of last season as he trends upwards. Getting major league contributions from him seems imperative for a team with big aspirations in 2016 and beyond.
But there’s one big concern: innings. Archie threw just 61 innings last season thanks to Carlos Gonzalez, then grabbed some amount of work in the fall. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he’d be ready to throw more than 120 innings this season, which if he were to begin the season in the rotation, would probably exhaust his workload in early to mid August. For a team hoping to be playing in October, that’s not the most helpful scenario. So rather than make Bradley a starter, why not use him as a bullpen ace?
If you’re not familiar with the term, a bullpen ace is a the type of guy who can give multiple innings of relief at a high level. This isn’t a long man – this is a guy with power stuff and has likely pitched before as a starter, who can give the team support through two-plus innings stints twice a week, possibly three times if a single inning is needed in there somewhere. The raw stuff is generally good and plays up out of the bullpen. The idea is to give this pitcher a bulk of innings for a reliever (something like 90-100 innings), helping bridge the gap to the back end of the bullpen by using a single reliever rather than two or three. This can allow the manager to hook his starter a little earlier without risking overexposure and keep his long man and/or middle relievers from being overexposed as well.
Let’s apply this specifically to the 2016 Diamondbacks. If you recall, Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray may have issues logging large numbers of innings. Corbin’s issue stems from his return from injury where 150-160 innings seems a likely limit. Ray simply struggles to get through a ton of innings given his issues putting away hitters and likely ends up somewhere in the 170-180 inning range. By providing a viable alternative, Bradley could help keep Corbin’s outings short so as to get him through the bulk of the season and help relieve Ray when he really starts to labor in, or just beyond, the fifth inning as his pitch count escalates.
There’s another benefit here, too. Both Corbin and Ray are left-handed. It would be no surprise to see managers normally stack their lineups with right-handed hitters against these two. If Bradley were to come in immediately afterwards, he’d have the platoon advantage over the bulk of the lineup. If the opposing manager wants to counter and use left-handed pinch hitters against him, the manager is expiring the left-handed hitters on his bench in the fifth, sixth and/or seventh innings, providing favorable matchups for the rest of the bullpen later in the game. If he doesn’t go to his bench that early, Bradley will have the advantage as he works through his innings. Should opposing managers know this strategy is coming, they may not stack the lineups with righties to begin with, assisting Corbin and Ray during their five-plus innings or work to begin with. The mixing and matching of quality lefty starters with a right-handed bullpen ace could really help sway the matchups in Arizona’s favor.
And before you dismiss this as totally wild, it should be noted that it’s been done before. Here are few recent examples:
- In both 2014 and 2015, Dellin Betances has often pitched with power stuff in multiple inning stints for the New York Yankees with strong results. A former starter, Betances is basically elite at this point and Bradley doesn’t quite have his stuff. By using Betances in the bullpen rather than trying to make him a starter, he can rely almost exclusively on his fastball and changeup, his two best offerings.
- The 2012-2014 versions of Craig Stammen paid dividends for the Washington Nationals as a multi-inning reliever with good stuff and better outcomes. A developing Bradley might be able to provide similar results as Stammen was brought up as a starter who transitioned to the ‘pen out of need. He throws three pitches (fastball, slider, curve), but has never developed a strong changeup and by pitching in relief, he’s never needed to rely on it.
- The 2014 version of Adam Warren filled this role for the Yankees. As a starter he struggled a bit to be more than average, but from the bullpen, his velocity ticked up and he was able to post much more impressive results. He threw four pitches but saw all of them play up in multi-inning relief stints before moving back to the rotation.
- In 2012, Wade Davis made his bullpen debut for the Rays as a failed starter-turned bullpen ace. He often threw multiple innings and benefitted from both a velocity increase and a sharpening of stuff by pitching in shorter stints. Of course, Davis has gone on to become one of the elite relievers in the game today.
With just these examples in mind, we can see some immediate potential benefits for Archie Bradley:
- More velocity
- Focus on best pitches, bring others along slowly
- The potential to move back to the rotation
We can also see some immediate potential benefits of the Diamondbacks:
- Innings buffer for Corbin and, to a lesser extent, Ray
- More favorable batter/pitcher matchups, or
- Forcing opposing team to use bench options early
- Develops Archie Bradley as a pitcher against MLB competition
- Bradley can join the rotation midseason if need be without having to face a new competition level
This topic is ripe for a more nuanced discussion and I hope the Diamondbacks are willing to entertain one. While it’s not part of the traditional bullpen that the team seems to favor, they can still get production and value from Bradley at the big league level without putting him directly into the rotation. Bringing guys along as relievers early in their careers, then making them starters, used to be common practice but is rarely seen these in today’s game. That’s okay, but just because it’s uncommon doesn’t mean it can’t work.
By providing exposure, Bradley can grow. By making him a reliever, he can focus on his best pitches. By using him right after a guy like Patrick Corbin, he can provide some safety for Chip Hale. And if it all fails, Bradley heads to Reno where he’d likely end up anyways. What we’re really talking about is costing the team it’s final bullpen spot and I can safely argue that I’d rather see Bradley than Enrique Burgos, even though I not-so-secretly love Enrique Burgos. Having Archie in the majors is in the team’s best interest, Archie’s best interest and provides the biggest benefit from the last bullpen spot for a contending team. As he grows into the pitcher he can be, we can then look to add Archie Bradley back to the rotation for good.
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