Bradley enters spring with newfound confidence after rookie campaign

February 15th, 2024

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- For , last year was all about the unknown.

He reported to Spring Training last year as the Rays’ top prospect, on the verge of reaching the Majors but with no track record at the game’s highest level. He was called up much earlier than expected, and stuck around longer than anticipated, as injuries decimated Tampa Bay’s rotation. He had to learn a lot on the fly, settle into a relatively unfamiliar clubhouse and compete against the best hitters in the world.

Things are different now for the 22-year-old right-hander. He survived his up-and-down rookie season, graduated from prospect status and returned to Spring Training to find a bunch of familiar faces. The start of Spring Training felt like going back to school, Bradley said -- in a good way.

“Just getting to know them through a full season, even hanging out with them in the locker room now, it’s like the first day of school,” Bradley said Thursday morning. “You go back, hug everybody, see everybody. You’re not introducing yourself for the first time.

“I’m just more comfortable, less nervous. … Especially after last year, not knowing what my progress would be like in the big leagues, but now knowing it’s not that different. Confidence is going to get me through it.”

Bradley can also be more confident knowing his role on the team heading into this year.

After injuries expedited his early April promotion last season, Bradley is expected to be part of an Opening Day rotation that has been almost entirely overhauled over the past year. If everything goes according to plan, he and new starter Ryan Pepiot could slot in behind the more experienced trio of Zach Eflin, Aaron Civale and Zack Littell.

Bradley said he’s not out to prove anything to anyone else, but he has set high expectations for himself. He said Thursday he wants to win a Cy Young Award. To get to that point, he wants to establish himself now and stick in the Rays’ rotation all year after a back-and-forth debut season.

The Rays don’t want to put any undue pressure on Bradley but expect he’ll capitalize on another opportunity this season.

“He did so many good things, and it wasn't like he had a full year under his belt. There was a lot of up, down. There was a lot of adjustments,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We just want to see progress. I don't think it's fair to look at Taj and say, 'Hey, you've got to take this big, huge jump,' but we're optimistic it's in there. And he's capable of taking a big jump.”

He certainly has the ability, even if his 5.59 ERA and 4.79 FIP last season don’t reflect it. His fastball averaged 96.1 mph last year. Opponents hit just .169 against his curveball. His changeup, which he worked on during a midseason demotion, produced a 41% whiff rate. Bradley said he spent the winter tweaking “a few things” with his cutter, which was hit often (.312 opponents’ average) and hard (.581 slugging percentage) last season.

He saw the results of that work during Thursday’s bullpen session, as he was visibly pleased with how he threw the ball and the pitch data supporting that feeling. After his last offering zipped out of his right hand and into the catcher’s glove, Bradley marched down the mound and smiled.

“I feel good,” Bradley said. “Just keep going.”

Around the horn

• Reliever Manuel Rodríguez also looked good in his first bullpen session of camp. The Rays acquired the hard-throwing right-hander from the Cubs prior to last year’s Trade Deadline. He spent the final months of the season in Triple-A without being called up, but managed to impress Rays staff when he pitched to rehabbing outfielders Jose Siri and Luke Raley during a postseason workout day last October.

In 15 appearances for Durham, the 27-year-old Rodríguez posted a 3.06 ERA with 24 strikeouts and eight walks in 17 2/3 innings. The Rays added him to their 40-man roster to prevent him from reaching Minor League free agency, and he could play a role in their bullpen this season as a power arm who can be shuttled between the Majors and Triple-A.

• Pepiot, Eflin and relievers Colin Poche, Shawn Armstrong, Garrett Cleavinger and Chris Devenski were among the other pitchers who threw bullpen sessions on Thursday morning.

• Second baseman Brandon Lowe and new outfielder Richie Palacios joined the growing group of early arriving position players, which also includes Taylor Walls, José Caballero, Curtis Mead, Junior Caminero, Carson Williams and Greg Jones, among others.