Having hype as a 21-year-old athlete can lead to inevitable disappointment if they don't perform exactly as advertised, especially when that athlete hasn't played a professional baseball game above Double-A.
For Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Archie Bradley, the hype machine has reached a fever pitch heading into 2014, putting all the pressure in the world on his shoulders. If any young hurler in the minors seems prepared to deal with it, it's Bradley.
Bradley, the seventh-overall pick in the 2011 Major League Baseball draft, saw his stock skyrocket last year after posting a stellar 1.84 ERA (third best in the minors) and 169 strikeouts in 152 innings across High-A and Double-A.
Now, he enters 2014 as MLB.com's top pitching prospect (fifth overall on the top 100 list). Bleacher Report MLB Lead Prospect writer Mike Rosenbaum lists Bradley's MLB ETA as mid-2014. Given the trajectory of his career in the last 12 months, that seems about right.
But there are a few things Bradley still has to do in order to reach his lofty expectations this season, which will in turn make him a better pitcher for the rest of his career.
The Spring Fling
Most top prospects in the upper levels of the minors will be on their team's 40-man roster, but Bradley is still working his way up. He will get there very soon, if not by the end of spring training.
As it stands, Bradley has to settle for being one of Arizona's 27 non-roster invitees this spring. That all but ensures he won't be in the starting rotation when the season starts, in case you thought there was a chance it would happen.
With no real pressure on him this spring, Bradley can relax and just pitch the way he knows how. He told the media after the Diamondbacks signed Bronson Arroyo that it wasn't going to change what he does, via ArizonaSports.com.
I think if I come in here and try to earn the (fifth rotation) spot from day one or just try to go all out, you know, I'm going to end up getting hurt or doing something that I'm not supposed to do.
All that Bradley has to do is show the stuff that made him MLB.com's top pitching prospect to make this a successful spring. If he's throwing his fastball in the 93-97 mph range, with that hammer curveball buckling knees, no one is going to question when he will be up.
Considering the depth Arizona currently has in the rotation, with Arroyo joining a group that includes Patrick Corbin, Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy, it will take at least one injury for Bradley to start the year in the big leagues.
When the Games Count
It will be interesting to see where the Diamondbacks send Bradley if he doesn't start the year in Arizona.
He made 21 starts at Double-A last year and wouldn't have much to prove at that level, but moving him to the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League Reno team may not be in his best interest. That league can wreak havoc on a pitcher's stuff, causing him to lose confidence and nibble around the plate.
Wherever Bradley goes, there are two flaws he must fix to avoid having any issues in the big leagues when Arizona brings him up: fastball command and developing a consistent changeup.
As good as Bradley's numbers were last season, he still issued 69 walks in 152 innings. That was a huge improvement from the 84 free passes he gave out in 136 innings two years ago but still high for an elite pitching prospect.
In his scouting report, Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) wrote that some of Bradley's command issues stem from not always finishing his pitches and a high leg kick/arm swing in his delivery that causes him to "lose balance and pace on the secondary offerings."
Bradley knows how good his fastball and curveball are—legit 70-grade pitches (on the 20-80 scouting scale) when they're on—which has stunted the development of his changeup.
Most minor league hitters aren't going to touch a pitcher who has one elite-level pitch, let alone two, making it unnecessary to use a third pitch.
Bradley's changeup looks like an effective weapon at times, but he's got to start throwing it more to get consistent with it.
Rosenbaum noted that there have been positive steps taken to make the change look like a real weapon, saying it "flashes above-average potential with late fade; command varies but his feel for the pitch is encouraging."
Improving in those two areas will ensure that Bradley won't need much development time in the big leagues when the call comes. Considering how he improved from 2012 to 2013, combined with elite athleticism and a workhorse demeanor, it shouldn't be a huge adjustment for Bradley to make.
When the Call Comes
Here's where the hype machine really takes over, making it almost impossible for a prospect to live up to it unless they are Mike Trout or Bryce Harper.
Archie Bradley is going to be a star, one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball, but in due time. When he gets to Arizona, at some point in 2014, there are going to be growing pains.
There are two things you want to see from him right away: power stuff and strikeouts. The first won't be a problem, because those are natural gifts he was born with.
Strikeouts will be another matter, depending on how well the fastball command comes along. He's going to miss some bats right away because of the velocity on the fastball and shape of the curveball.
But there's a substantial difference in the way you can attack minor league hitters and MLB hitters. Pitches that are one inch off the plate that minor leaguers swing at, big leaguers aren't going to chase.
That's why being able to manipulate the ball and throw it to all four quadrants of the plate is just as important as the quality of the stuff.
A successful season in 2014 for Bradley would entail making it to the big leagues late in the season, either as a starter or, depending on Arizona's need, reliever, and have a handful of outings where you have no doubts about why this is the best pitching prospect in baseball right now.
It sounds like a modest proposal for a top-five prospect who isn't far from being MLB-ready, but keep in mind that Bradley doesn't turn 22 until August. Barring an injury, he could be in the big leagues at the same age Stephen Strasburg was when he arrived in Washington (21).
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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