Taj Bradley walked Alex Verdugo to lead off his MLB debut last Wednesday, but quickly got out of the inning with a strikeout of Rafael Devers and a double-play grounder from Justin Turner. The Rays right-hander went on to earn the win by limiting the Red Sox to three runs in five innings with eight strikeouts and just one walk.
The 22-year-old threw 78 pitches, 52 for strikes, sitting 95-98 mph with his fastball.
Bradley was dominant in spring training with 17 Ks in 10.1 innings with two walks while posting a 2.61 ERA, but he was sent to Triple-A with the Rays going instead with 26-year-old soft-tossing lefty Josh Fleming in the fifth spot of the rotation. Bradley struggled in his first start for Durham (3 ER, 3 walks in 2 innings) before looking like himself in a second start there (1 ER, 0 walks in 5 innings). It didn’t take long for an opportunity to arise when Zach Eflin hit the IL with a bad back.
After holding his own against the Red Sox, Bradley was sent back to Durham the next day, but another opportunity came quickly when Jeffrey Springs injured his elbow.
In his second MLB start, Bradley dominated the Reds on Tuesday, striking out 9 with 1 walk in 5.1 scoreless innings to earn his second win in as many tries.
Drafted in the fifth round in 2018 out of Redan High School in Georgia after taking up pitching in his senior season, he spent his first two seasons developing in rookie ball at the Gulf Coast League and the Appalachian League. Coming back from the pandemic, Bradley broke out in 2021 with a 1.76 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 66.2 IP for Low-A Charleston and a 1.96 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 36.2 IP for High-A Bowling Green.
Bradley kept it up to start 2022, posting a 1.70 ERA with a 88-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74.1 innings for Double-A Montgomery. He started out slow for Triple-A Durham with a 5.63 ERA over his first six starts, but quickly turned it around with a 2.31 ERA over his final six starts.
So what can we expect from the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder in his rookie season? Looking at the system with the highest innings projection, ZiPS, Bradley is expected to post a solid 3.82 ERA with a pretty good 1.21 WHIP and a 99-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 105 innings. With Springs reportedly set to be getting Tommy John surgery, we’re betting that Bradley spends most if not the rest of the season with the Rays, Bradley should be able to stay in the rotation even when Eflin and Tyler Glasnow return from the IL and wind up accumulating 150 innings for Tampa Bay, so something like a 3.60 ERA with a 1.18 WHIP and 150 strikeouts is a reasonable expectation.
The worry is that the Rays will cap his workload by limiting pitch counts so that he has a hard time staying around long enough to get wins, possibly even moving to the bullpen at some point to hold his innings down. There’s also the concern that Bradley’s arsenal needs another effective pitch to go with his plus fastball and excellent upper-80s cutter. Both of his other two pitches are works in progress and the usage on his curve is 9.9% and his changeup is just 1.2%.
As for the long-term future, Bradley is a safe bet to become a mid-rotation mainstay for the Rays, benefiting from Tampa Bay’s pitcher-friendly ballpark and a strong defense behind him. If he can keep his strikeout rate above 9 K/9 (it’s 14.8 over his first two MLB starts after 8.1 in Triple-A last year), Bradley could become a No. 2 or 3 starter in fantasy due in part to the excellent command that should lead to low WHIPs. If he can come up with a more effective third pitch, Bradley has a shot to become an ace and a perennial All-Star.