ST. PETERSBURG -- On June 18, right-hander Taj Bradley threw 71 pitches over four innings in a start for Double-A Montgomery against the Rocket City Trash Pandas. It was his second straight four-inning outing and the 11th time and 12 starts he hadn’t reached the sixth, and he wanted to keep pitching. So, while milling around in the bullpen the next day, the 21-year-old asked his coaches why he wasn’t able to go back out for another inning.
“That conversation was driven by my competitive nature, just wanting to play and asking why,” he said.
The answer from Montgomery manager Morgan Ensberg and the rest of the coaching staff was efficiency. Ideally, Bradley would throw around 75 pitches in five innings, not 71 over four. If Bradley wanted to work deeper into games, he had to put away hitters quicker, utilize his changeup more, mix his pitches and be more economical on the mound.
Bradley went out and did exactly that in his next start, throwing 70 pitches over six scoreless innings on June 24. On July 1, he fired 79 pitches in six scoreless innings. And then again last Thursday, when he struck out seven in another scoreless six-inning start on 70 pitches.
“It took a single conversation in the bullpen while he's just grabbing a water, and he implements it the next game,” Ensberg said, repeating for emphasis: “The next game!”
These are the kinds of stories you tend to hear about Bradley. He’s got elite stuff, sure, with a fastball and cutter that overpowered Double-A hitters. He’s got impressive numbers, naturally, with a Southern League-best 1.70 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings this year. He also combines a natural curiosity about pitching with impressive aptitude and a drive to be the best version of himself, which has allowed him to improve in a hurry.
As a result, Bradley is now the Rays’ top-ranked prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, with Shane Baz having graduated off the list. The next time Bradley takes the mound, it should be Saturday at Dodger Stadium in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game. And when he leaves Los Angeles, he was told on Wednesday, he will be promoted to Triple-A Durham, one call away from the Majors.
“I'm just going to be where my feet are and just work on what I've been working on: being consistent, mixing my pitches,” Bradley said. “I know where I want to be, but I'm going to be where I am right now and just continue to do what I'm doing and learn as I'm going.”
This should be a big weekend for Bradley, the Rays’ fifth-round pick in the 2018 Draft. He said he was honored by the Futures Game nod and excited to experience the atmosphere at Dodger Stadium during the All-Star festivities. He’s looking forward to being there with fellow Rays prospect Curtis Mead and seeing a wealth of Minor League talent on one field.
And Bradley's thrilled to be on such a stage in Los Angeles, where he said nearly everyone in his family lives. Many of them will get to watch him pitch in person for the first time, and Bradley figures to put on a show if he gets into the game.
“That's even better,” he said. “They're letting me know they got their tickets already. They might not be sitting together, but I'm pretty sure you'll hear all over the field some people cheering.”
Bradley is not a finished product. He’s still learning to read swings and adjust his approach off that. He wants to work deeper into games more consistently. He said he’s still keeping notes in journals his mom bought him for Christmas, writing with the $13 pen he bought off Amazon.
“That's what the Minor Leagues are for, just to figure stuff out,” he said. “That's what I tell myself.”
But Ensberg drew a favorable comparison between Bradley and two of the Rays’ recent top pitching prospects he also managed in Double-A: Baz and Shane McClanahan. They all have elite stuff, high-powered arms, swing-and-miss offspeed stuff that plays well in the strike zone and a certain intangible quality that drives them to get better.
“Taj really makes it look easy. It’s a very smooth, under-control delivery with elite stuff at a very young age,” Ensberg said. “And the way he carries himself, his demeanor is really impressive for somebody that young. But underneath, which I think most great pitchers have, is the very strong fire in him. … He expects a lot of himself. He believes in himself. And he works his tail off.”