How Bradley worked his way back from Triple-A to Rays' rotation

September 5th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry’s Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. PETERSBURG -- When the Rays optioned rookie to Triple-A after acquiring starter Aaron Civale on July 31, they had a few things in mind.

First, they knew they’d need him again this season. The coaching staff sent him out with a handful of areas to improve, believing he deserved better than the subpar surface-level stats he posted. And they thought a few weeks away from the Major League spotlight might be good for the 22-year-old right-hander. 

“This is not an easy transition -- and certainly for a player as young as Taj is and how quick his ascent has been,” pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “Mental resets are important. It's a long season, and Taj is a huge part of our future.” 

The Rays will surely need their former top prospect moving forward. The top of their rotation is set with Tyler Glasnow, Zach Eflin and Civale. Zack Littell has done an admirable job moving out of the bullpen to start. After rejoining the Rays’ rotation in their 6-2 win Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, Bradley will round out a five-man rotation down the stretch and potentially carve out a role on their postseason staff. 

He wasn’t exactly dominant in his return. He allowed two runs (one earned) on three hits, walked five and struck out seven over five innings. But it was an effective start and an encouraging step in the right direction based on how he pitched and how he felt.

The season-high five walks were uncharacteristic for Bradley, who walked fewer than two batters in nine of his first 16 big league outings. As manager Kevin Cash noted afterward, “Taj has pitched up here enough for us to know that that’s really not him.” It was also a bit unexpected, in the opposite way, to see him strike out seven of the 24 batters he faced, considering Cleveland’s 19 percent strikeout rate is the second-lowest mark in the Majors. 

Everything else went according to plan.  

The Rays asked Bradley to increase his changeup usage and bury more below the strike zone, and he was pleased to do both against the Guardians. His changeup accounted for 24 of his 86 pitches, making that his top secondary offering behind his electric fastball (which he threw 46 times). He recorded four swinging strikes on his changeup and used that pitch to finish three strikeouts. 

“I felt really good. I felt confident and just in attack mode,” he said. “I was happy.” 

The last part might be the most important. During his time down, Bradley felt like he was able to have fun again. Maybe it was the reset the Rays were hoping for. 

“Up here, I felt like I had to do too much or different things, pressure on your shoulders and stuff like that,” he said. “But I was happy to come up here for the amount of time I did, go back down [and work on] what I learned, get my feet wet up here a little bit and just take that and just sit on it for a little bit. 

“Cash, when I got optioned back, just said, ‘Hey, man, this might be a good thing. Go down there, take a breather and then come up ready.’”