The Road to The Show™: Rays righty Bradley
Each week, MiLB.com profiles an elite prospect by chronicling the steps he's taken toward achieving his Major League dream. Here's a look at Rays No. 3 prospect Taj Bradley. For more stories about players on The Road to The Show, click here. The bar is high, but Taj Bradley could
Each week, MiLB.com profiles an elite prospect by chronicling the steps he's taken toward achieving his Major League dream. Here's a look at Rays No. 3 prospect Taj Bradley. For more stories about players on The Road to The Show, click here.
The bar is high, but Taj Bradley could emerge as yet another success story from the Rays' supremely talented 2018 Draft class.
Tampa Bay’s third-ranked prospect was picked by the club in the fifth round that year. His selection came after the Rays landed Matthew Liberatore and Shane McClanahan with their first two picks, and two rounds ahead of Joe Ryan.
Liberatore was eventually traded to the Cardinals as part of a deal for 2020 postseason hero Randy Arozarena and made his Major League debut last month. McClanahan, still with Tampa Bay, is the Major League leader in strikeouts and American League leader in ERA. Ryan has become a mainstay in the Twins’ rotation and was their starter on Opening Day.
Bradley, meanwhile, remains right on the heels of the rest of the group. His breakout last year was recognized with a 2021 MiLBY Award as Top Starting Pitcher in the Minors during his first full season with High-A Bowling Green and Single-A Charleston. And now he’s following it up with an even better campaign with Double-A Montgomery this year.
“To our many Minor Leaguers that didn’t have the opportunity to play games in 2020, can’t give them enough credit for finding ways to get better. He was one of many in that regard. That showed up in the success of our system, certainly showed up in his performance specifically,” Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander said in November. “The reports from staff were that he’s just an absolute delight to work with and someone that takes his craft very seriously.”
Coming out of Redan High School in Stone Mountain, Georgia, Bradley was the youngest player to be ranked among MLB Pipeline’s Top 200 Draft prospects. He had a strong commitment to the University of South Carolina and was not a full-time pitcher in high school. But the Rays lured him into pro ball with a $747,500 bonus, which was more than twice his slot value.
Bradley spent the last of his teenage years in Rookie ball before the pandemic. He held a 5.09 ERA in 10 outings in the Gulf Coast League in 2018 and showed a marked improvement with Princeton in the Appalachian League the following year, posting a 3.18 ERA and .219 opponents batting average.
Now listed at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, Bradley said he got up to about 230 pounds heading into 2020. He used the lost season to transform his body and worked out in his living room with resistance bands, a dumbbell and a physio ball before facilities began to open.
Natural maturity of the then-19-year-old also contributed to his transformation, but Bradley was a different pitcher when he got to the Rays’ instructional camp at the end of that year. He noted that he was able to get his leg higher in his delivery, making it easier to keep his chest and trunk straight. With that, his sinking fastball velocity rose to the upper 90s.
While the physical changes have been successful, the 21-year-old has also been lauded for his mental approach to pitching, which famously includes his journal.
“The journal just helps me get all my thoughts and feelings out,” Bradley told MLB.com in March. “It's just me talking to myself. So it’s just as if I'm looking in the mirror, and I write it down to remember it, look back on, and just put notes that I can have for my next outing or next bullpen.”
The No. 63 overall prospect describes the contents of the journal as footnotes on his delivery, his pitches and himself. He also likes to jot down quotes from athletes or celebrities. But the journal has also been helpful in absorbing lessons from coaches, both broad and specific.
“I was coming in fresh. It’s a lot of things being thrown at you all at once, and you’re only remembering, ‘OK, speed your arm up,’” Bradley told MLB.com in January. “I started writing them down, so I could remember the little things.”
It was in these conversations with coaches -- especially R.C. Lichtenstein, who was Bradley’s pitching coach with Charleston last year -- that the credo of “athletic arrogance” was adopted.
“To me, [athletic arrogance] means a dominant persona, meaning you don't have to shy away from a hitter, or shy away from a pitch. You throw with the intent you have and confidence that it's your best pitch in that moment,” Bradley said. “Having that athletic arrogance means that I know that in that moment, it's gonna work and it's gonna play well.”
With that outlook, Bradley had arguably the best season for any pitcher in the Minors last year. His 1.83 ERA was the best among full-season qualifiers, and he finished with 123 strikeouts and only 31 walks in 103 1/3 innings overall. Bradley posted an ERA better than 2.00 in both Charleston and Bowling Green and was the ace of the staff of the only two teams to reach 80 wins last season.
“I took what I learned last season and implemented it in my training for the offseason. Looking back on last season, that's all I can really take from it, the journals that I had, and take it into next season,” Bradley said. “The accolades are cool, they were nice to have in the moment, but like I said, all that's left in 2021. It’s 2022, so now it's, how am I gonna be this year? So that's all I'm really focused on.”
When the Minor League season reached its halfway point last week, Bradley sported a 1.82 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings. He’ll likely have a Futures Game appearance and another promotion ahead of him this year. As the Rays make a push toward the postseason, it might not be a surprise to see Bradley follow Shane Baz’s path and appear in the Majors in 2022. Until then, he’ll remain one of the best pitchers in the Minors.
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.