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Inside the Rays’ decision to send down pitching prospect Taj Bradley

The top priority is to get the 22-year-old acclimated to the five-day schedule used in the majors, but there is more to it than that.
 
Pitching coach Kyle Snyder said Taj Bradley, pictured, “genuinely exceeded everyone’s expectations” to the point that the Rays “accelerated” the process to make him more ready for the majors.
Pitching coach Kyle Snyder said Taj Bradley, pictured, “genuinely exceeded everyone’s expectations” to the point that the Rays “accelerated” the process to make him more ready for the majors. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published April 29, 2023

CHICAGO — The primary reason the Rays made the surprising decision earlier this week to send premier pitching prospect Taj Bradley to Triple-A Durham was pretty much what they said: to get him better ready now to help them more later.

Principally, that means transitioning him from the six-day starting schedule he mostly has been on in the minor leagues to the once-every-five-day routine that is common in the majors.

Given Bradley’s potential as a 22-year-old with a prized right arm, impressive repertoire and immense promise, the Rays want him to do so properly and cautiously in the minors. There, they can better control the situation — such as planned abbreviated outings — without concern about the results and impact on the team.

“The biggest key in these circumstances, in terms of what’s best for Taj, is making sure that he’s done that in a different environment so that’ll be easier for him to put it into practice in this environment,” Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said.

“We can just go down there and script this and we can check the box, and I think everybody can feel better about his preparedness at that point to be able to come back here and just resume what he was doing.”

But there are additional things — despite Bradley’s dazzling start (3-0 record, 3.52 ERA, 23 strikeouts in 15-1/3 innings) — they want him to improve on. And there are other reasons for the move, including service time, internal competition and late season availability.

Here is a breakdown:

A high five

Zach Eflin, who made his debut with the Phillies at age 22, said it's important for pitchers that young in their careers to get on a five-day schedule and get their routine down "to be able to build up that endurance and stamina and be able to go every fifth day.”
Zach Eflin, who made his debut with the Phillies at age 22, said it's important for pitchers that young in their careers to get on a five-day schedule and get their routine down "to be able to build up that endurance and stamina and be able to go every fifth day.” [ MATT ROURKE | AP ]

The change to pitching regularly every fifth day, rather than once in a while, or on every sixth, is a real thing.

“I think so,” said Rays veteran Zach Eflin, who also debuted at age 22. “It’s very important for guys that young in their careers to get on a five-day schedule and get your routine down … to be able to build up that endurance and stamina and be able to go every fifth day.”

The six-day schedule became more common with the 2021 minors-wide switch to playing six-game series with Mondays off, meaning only one starter could work on a five-day routine each week without extensive disruption to the others.

Bradley has pitched on the fifth day occasionally in the minors but never, Snyder said, twice in a row, which is what the Rays want him to experience.

They have plenty of devices to collect and compare data, but the biggest key will be Bradley being honest in his assessment during his outings at Durham, which are likely to be limited to 50-60 pitches, and over the days after.

“The goal is for him to feel Day 5 in back-to-back scenarios and know what it’s like to throw the first pitch on that day for the first time in his pro career,” Snyder said.

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The timing of the move wasn’t random. The Rays are in the midst of stretches of games on 10, 13, and 16 straight days, which would have led to making multiple (and potentially three straight) starts on a five-day plan, and some in colder weather. Bradley is expected to start for Durham Sunday on a six-day routine (given the disruption of being sent down), twice on a fifth day, then on a sixth and reassess.

“It’s definitely different,” added Rays starter Drew Rasmussen. “I know my hardest transition was coming from college to pro ball. When you’re accustomed to a seven-day (routine) or a six-day, the recovery is different.

“So, you just have to try and figure out a routine that works for you in a timely matter, almost what you can eliminate when you don’t have the extra day or days. So, there is a little bit of just a learning curve. He’s going to have no issues. He’s so talented. He’s so athletic. He works so hard that he’s going to figure it out.”

Pitching in

Taj Bradley had a remarkable start with the Rays, compiling a 3-0 record and 3.52 ERA with 23 strikeouts over 15-1/3 innings while beating the Red Sox, Reds and Astros.
Taj Bradley had a remarkable start with the Rays, compiling a 3-0 record and 3.52 ERA with 23 strikeouts over 15-1/3 innings while beating the Red Sox, Reds and Astros. [ IVY CEBALLO ]

The Rays were thrilled with what Bradley did in beating the Red Sox, Reds and Astros in what might have been his best three outings at any level. Especially since his first two games this year at Durham weren’t particularly good.

“He doesn’t deserve to go down based on his performance,” Snyder said. “But we also have a responsibility to have the longer view as a primary focus.”

Which means a couple of things:

• To further refine his curveball and change-up, which he threw better and more often than expected, though he still featured fastballs and cutters heavily (80 percent).

• To find ways to maintain his velocity. Bradley clocked as high as 98 mph with his fastball and averaged 96.4 with the Rays; by the end of last season, after being promoted from Double-A to Triple-A, he was around 93.

• To save innings for later in the big-league season. Bradley threw 133-1/3 last year, so he might have about 160 this year. With 22 already thrown, he can be limited at Triple-A for a while.

The Rays don’t want to be in a situation like the Nationals were in 2012 with Stephen Strasburg, who, less than two years after Tommy John surgery was shut down in September when he reached an innings limit and was not available in the playoffs.

Still, the Rays were quite impressed with Bradley, who Snyder said “genuinely exceeded everyone’s expectations” to the point that they “accelerated” the process to make him more ready for the majors.

Baseball operations president Erik Neander said Bradley “validated” their expectations with his advanced maturity and composure, and exceeded them in executing his full repertoire.

“It really opened up our eyes with respect to where he is at present versus where we thought he might have been prior,” Neander said.

Still, for their season and Bradley’s long-term career, sending him down now “is a really important, nearly non-negotiable step when it comes to preparing a player physically for what is required to them in the big leagues.”

Check for service

Decisions to demote young players often are viewed as a way to manipulate service time in the majors, which eventually determines arbitration and free-agency eligibility. And the Rays did accomplish that in sending Bradley down Tuesday, as he no longer can accrue the 172 days needed for a full year, which would make him a free agent after the 2028 season (now it would be after 2029).

But for that to really matter, Bradley would have to be good enough to stay in the majors from now on and stay healthy enough to be worthy of big bucks. Both of those have proven to be rare for pitchers, and if it did happen the Rays likely either would be pleased to pay him or reap a nice return in a trade.

Rules in the latest collective bargaining agreement incentivize teams to call up young players by offering them additional draft picks if the players are on the roster for 172 days and among the top finishers for big awards, and similarly give the players a full year of service time. Plus, the Rays showed their willingness to go against service time manipulation talk last year when they put rookie Josh Lowe on the opening-day roster, only to demote him after a rough first month.

Line them up

From left, Rays third baseman Taylor Walls (6), catcher Christian Bethancourt (14), starting pitcher Taj Bradley and pitching coach Kyle Snyder (23) have a discussion during a game against the Boston Red Sox earlier this month at Tropicana Field.
From left, Rays third baseman Taylor Walls (6), catcher Christian Bethancourt (14), starting pitcher Taj Bradley and pitching coach Kyle Snyder (23) have a discussion during a game against the Boston Red Sox earlier this month at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO ]

The Rays always have contingencies for their contingency plans. None of those necessarily included calling up Bradley in April. Giving more opportunity to Josh Fleming, and calling up Yonny Chirinos and possibly Luis Patino, were their preferred course of action.

But when they found out April 11 that Eflin couldn’t make his start the next day due to back tightness, Bradley became their top option because he was lined up on full rest.

Bradley was told it was a one-start cameo, and after his strong debut was sent down as expected. But when Jeffrey Springs was hurt the next day and the Rays got the sense it was serious, it again worked out that Bradley was the best fit, and he made two more starts.

Chirinos and Fleming are both now in the rotation, though sometimes pitching behind openers. And Tyler Glasnow is tracking a mid-to late-May return to reclaim one of those spots.

If Bradley transitions well to the five-day routine, and in at least in one outing pushes his career-high workload past 91 pitches, he will be back in the mix the next time they need a starter. The Rays hope the decision can be merit-based.

And maybe then, Bradley can stick around.

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