Bradford's 'heart and soul' in bid for starting job

February 28th, 2024

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Last spring, was admittedly a little shell-shocked to be around guys like Jacob deGrom and Nathan Eovaldi.

It wasn’t his first time in big league camp and he knew he had a job to do in terms of impressing the new coaching staff, but being around some of the best in the game had him a bit wide-eyed, Bradford admitted.

A year later, Bradford, 26, has made his MLB debut and won a World Series while being a major part of the Rangers’ pitching staff during that run.

“It's a little bit more easygoing,” he joked.

That’s not to say it’ll be an easy spring for Bradford on the field. He’s still got to earn his spot on the Opening Day roster.

In his rookie campaign, Bradford posted a 5.30 ERA in 56 innings. He appeared in 20 games, starting eight of them, and recorded 51 strikeouts compared to just 12 walks. He became a vital part of the bullpen during the postseason, allowing just one run in 7 2/3 innings (five appearances).

In camp, there’s competition for the No. 5 starter and multiple bullpen spots. Bradford is in a prime position to compete for both.

“It’s exciting that there’s a spot to win, whether it's in the ‘pen or in a starter's role,” Bradford said. “I just want to make the team first and let the coaches decide where to put us after that. Obviously I've been a starter for my whole career, so that's kind of my excitement going into camp. I see that opportunity and I want to do the best I can to help the team fill that role.”

Bradford’s main emphasis this offseason was re-introducing the curveball to his arsenal. He threw the pitch in college at Baylor, but scrapped it after undergoing thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in 2019. At that time, he added the slider to go with his fastball and changeup.

In 2023, he supplemented his primary four-seamer with a changeup and slider. The curveball should be a quality addition this upcoming season, though he’s only thrown five total in two spring appearances.

“It’s just to have something to steal strikes with,” Bradford said. “It was a good pitch for me [in college], so I’m trying to get back to basically figuring out how to do that again. After I had the surgery, for whatever reason, it was hard for me to hold my supination and it was hard to spin the curveball. It wasn't as good as it was in college. Now I think it’s to the point where it's definitely a strike pitch.”

A diverse repertoire will only increase Bradford’s chances of being on the big league pitching staff come Opening Day. Early in camp, his development is showing.

In his second Cactus League outing against the Dodgers on Wednesday, Bradford pitched two scoreless innings with two strikeouts as part of a 6-4 Rangers win. He allowed one run in two innings against the Royals in his first Spring Training appearance on Friday.

“I love guys that can command the fastball, and he's as good as anybody we have at doing that,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “Of course, he’s got the good changeup and the breaking ball has just gotten better. I have to like what I'm seeing from him.”

It’s yet to be seen if Bradford will take hold of the fifth starter spot or if he will transition to the bullpen as a long-relief option. He feels comfortable out of the ‘pen, but he also emphasized that his “heart and soul” is in starting.

“[I love] the responsibility that comes with it,” he said. “I just love the dynamic of trying to play chess with guys. I really enjoy that. So as a cerebral pitcher, I'd love to be a starter. But whatever the team needs.”

Whatever happens, happens, but either way, the Rangers are confident that the young lefty can be a vital part of the big league pitching staff once again in 2024.

“He was so valuable in the bullpen,” Bochy said. “He did such a great job of being the bridge to our high-leverage guys. In fact, at times he was one of our high-leverage guys. These are things we're talking about and discussing with him. But he showed he can start, and right now, we need starters. So that is an option, and it's a good option to have.

“It's nice to have the flexibility of a Bradford, who’s comfortable doing either job. He's shown he's resilient. So nothing is set in stone yet.”