Is Top Pitching Prospect Archie Bradley Ready to Shoulder Patrick Corbin's Load?

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Is Top Pitching Prospect Archie Bradley Ready to Shoulder Patrick Corbin's Load?
Chris Carlson/Associated Press

It was revealed last weekend that the Arizona Diamondbacks could soon be facing a worst-nightmare scenario. Now it's official: They are facing a worst-nightmare scenario.

And not even the best pitching prospect in baseball is likely to save them from it.

If you've been out of the loop, D-Backs ace Patrick Corbin exited his final spring tune-up last Saturday with a stiff forearm and was revealed to have damage to his left ulnar collateral ligament the next day.

That typically means Tommy John surgery. And according to Steve Gilbert of MLB.com, Corbin finally went under the knife on Tuesday:

By FanGraphs' WAR, the 24-year-old lefty was Arizona's best starter in 2013. The Diamondbacks came into the spring with him as their default No. 1 starter, and Kirk Gibson eventually picked him to start the club's season opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Australia.

Well, the D-Backs need a new ace now. With the free-agent market all dried up, it's only natural to wonder if Arizona might be able to fill that need from within by inserting top prospect Archie Bradley in its rotation and then watching him do the rest.

Mind you, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com was pondering the possibility of Bradley—who is MLB.com's No. 5 overall prospect—breaking camp in Arizona's rotation even before Corbin got hurt. He has sky-high potential after all, and the door was already open for him with Bronson Arroyo battling a bad back.

With Corbin out of the picture, Bradley opening 2014 in Arizona's rotation is even more likely.

But him stepping in and filling Corbin's shoes as Arizona's top starter? That's asking too much.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

What we need is some context for what filling Corbin's shoes entails. We can do that by using FanGraphs to juxtapose Corbin's 2013 production with his ZiPS projections for 2014:

Patrick Corbin's 2014 ZiPS Projections
Split GP (GS) IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR
2013 32 (32) 208.1 7.69 2.33 3.41 3.43 3.7
2014 ZiPS 33 (31) 202.1 7.45 2.32 3.53 3.52 3.2

FanGraphs

ZiPS was basically projecting more of the same. And for further perspective, that 3.2 projected WAR was actually better than what ZiPS has projected for guys like Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, C.J. Wilson and Justin Masterson.

ZiPS was expecting Corbin to be one of MLB's best starters. 

What this means is that there are only a handful of established MLB pitchers who fit the profile of a capable replacement for Corbin. It's therefore no surprise that ZiPS doesn't see a prospect like Bradley as being even remotely close:

Archie Bradley's 2014 ZiPS Projections
Split GP (GS) IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR
2013 (AA) 21 (21) 123.1 8.68 4.31 1.97 3.33 NA
2014 ZiPS 24 (24) 130.0 6.58 4.02 4.29 4.33 0.9

FanGraphs

Bradley jumping to the major leagues out of spring training would be a case of him skipping right past Triple-A. That's a big leap for any prospect to make, and likely the key reason why ZiPS has such a modest strikeout rate projected for him.

I actually think that projection is a bit too modest, as a jump from Double-A to the majors wouldn't harm his stuff—which is quite good, by the way, as Bradley throws in the mid-90s with a curveball that Bleacher Report's Mike Rosenbaum classifies as "plus-plus." 

At the same time, more strikeouts than what ZiPS is projecting would only help Bradley so much if that projection for his walk rate were to pan out. And therein lies a complication: That projection is fair.

One of the bigger knocks against Bradley is that his command is still iffy, and that's backed up by the numbers. You can see the iffy walk rate he had at Double-A last year, and that followed up a 5.59 BB/9 at Single-A in 2012.

He hasn't inspired confidence in his command so far this spring either, walking six in 8.1 innings in Cactus League play and three more in three-and-two-thirds innings in an exhibition against Team Australia.

Via ESPN.com, D-Backs manager Kirk Gibson granted that Bradley just didn't have good command against Team Australia. The pitcher also offered that he didn't have good command in his previous exhibition outing against the Seattle Mariners.

"In the 'pen, I felt good," Bradley said, via MLB.com. "I was throwing strikes. I really felt good with where I was at and then at the start of the game just lost it. It's never good when you're throwing 90 percent of your pitches out of the stretch. Just never could find consistency or really get comfortable. Just could never find a good spot and get where I felt good throwing the ball."

Nick Piecoro of The Arizona Republic was there to see Bradley against Seattle, and what he saw was a pitcher who was paying for issues that had been more hidden in previous outings:

In re-watching Bradley's outing against the Los Angeles Angels on March 8, I could see what Piecoro was talking about. Bradley looked very sharp when he set the Angels down in order in the first inning, but in the innings after that one, his release point got to be hit or miss. So too, not surprisingly, was his accuracy.

The other thing people say about Bradley is that his changeup isn't there yet. Rosenbaum wrote that it's a pitch with "above-average potential," which of course means it's not above-average now. A scout Heyman spoke to agreed, saying that Bradley's changeup is "developing."

You can catch a glimpse of said changeup right off the chute in this highlight video from Bradley's start against the Angels:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The result was good, as that changeup froze Albert Pujols for strike three. But beyond the result, it wasn't a particularly great pitch.

It wasn't actually a strike, for one. More importantly, it didn't have the kind of late-breaking movement you want to see in a changeup. It was a lot more loopy. 

Tracking that changeup's movement using still images, we see this:

Images courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Bradley was able to catch Pujols off guard, but the fear with a changeup that's more of a looper than a late-breaker is that hitters will be able to pick it up—especially once the scouting report starts getting around, which is inevitable with every young pitcher.

Granted, a pitcher doesn't necessarily need three outstanding pitches to make it in the majors. In fact, we just saw two youngsters have outstanding seasons just with heaters and breaking balls in 2013.

St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Shelby Miller was one. Per FanGraphs, he threw 71.3 percent heaters and 18.4 percent curves. He still managed a 3.06 ERA over 173.1 innings.

Jose Fernandez was the other. FanGraphs classified some of his breaking balls as sliders last year, but Brooks Baseball says he featured more than 50 percent four-seamers and more than 30 percent curveballs. He still managed a 2.19 ERA (drool...) across 172.2 innings.

There's a difference between these two guys and Bradley, however. Miller began his pro career with good command and eventually got a full season in Triple-A to further refine it (3.29 BB/9 in 27 starts). Fernandez made an eye-popping jump from Single-A to the majors last year, but he did so after walking only 2.4 per nine innings across two A-ball levels in 2012.

What their success tells us is this: If you're going to enter the league with only two quality pitches, you better be able to control them. That's an area where Bradley still needs some work.

Because he does have overpowering stuff, I'll wager that he could survive in the big leagues right now. But because he's still in the developmental phase of his career, it would be more like on-the-job training than anything else. Something like the 4.29 ERA in his ZiPS projections sounds about right.

That's good enough for the back end of the rotation, sure. But not good enough for the top of the rotation.

Bradley is going to be Arizona's ace eventually. It would be awfully convenient for him to become the club's ace now, as it would downgrade the loss of Corbin from "haymaker" to mere "love tap."

That, however, would require him to be a pitcher he's just not ready to be quite yet.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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