A player-development focused organization like the Orioles was always going to feel the sting of the loss of a year-plus of hands-on minor league work more than most. As such, the return of minor league baseball this week is hotly anticipated inside the front office.
There are many players they want to see on a field in a real uniform again, but one in particular most embodies the mystery, the promise and the excitement that’s attendant with minor league baseball’s return: right-hander Kyle Bradish.
One of four pitchers acquired from the Los Angeles Angels in December 2019 for starter Dylan Bundy, Bradish has seen his star rise inside the Orioles’ organization since that trade. They’ve also, basically, been his only audience.
Every minor leaguer changed in some form or fashion since the 2019 season ended. The Orioles will hope most of them changed for the better. But Bradish is tops on the list of those they and anyone invested in their rebuild want to see compete in a real game.
Bradish, like the other pitchers the Angels drafted, was shut down after Los Angeles made him a fourth-round pick in 2018 and didn’t pitch in a game until the 2019 season. When he finally got into games at High-A Inland Empire, Bradish said “it felt like I was kind of having to re-learn some stuff.”
But at the time of the trade — which happened while Bradish was on a trip to Hawaii to propose to his now-wife — he was already starting to build on that first full season. It was a benefit that would become evident for the Orioles early.
When he reported to early camp in spring training ahead of what would have been the 2020 minor league season, a fastball that he said was 90-92 mph the year before was more consistently in the 94-95 mph range.
That velocity, plus the unique look that it comes from, made Bradish even more interesting. He has a rare over-the-top delivery that Bradish posits came from his background as a quarterback. Justin Ramsey, the pitching coach at Double-A Bowie who has worked with Bradish for the past year-plus, said it’s not the type of thing that one might teach, but “you’re going to make sure it’s moving as efficiently as his body can, and it does.”
Ramsey believes the delivery work Bradish did last year, including at the team’s alternate site at Bowie, have helped deliver him to where he is now.
“He’s a big, strong dude and he’s getting more out of the low-half, putting himself in positions to that generate energy up the chain, and that, to me, is where the work has led to the uptick in velo since we acquired him,” Ramsey said.
The pitch mix, aided by the unique arm action, is also elevating. Bradish’s description of his four-seam fastball as a “hoppy cutter,” and his intent to work “more at the top of the zone and kind of using my lines off of that, just throwing sliders and curveballs and changeups off my fastball,” is as close to a modern-day ideal as a pitcher can get.
Ramsey said the curveball and slider are distinct, and even though the over-the-top release point means the spin direction and profile of his changeup is different than a traditional one like fellow right-hander Grayson Rodriguez has, the action and way it interacts with his fastball is the same.
Because of his velocity jump, the delivery work, and the pitch mix, Bradish is one of the top pitching prospects in the organization, at least in the Orioles’ estimation. In the offseason, the consensus within the player development department was that Bradish was in the tier below the Rodriguez/DL Hall duo atop their pitching ranks, but right with Mike Baumann atop the next level.
A lack of looks by those outside the organization made that hard to verify, and after Bundy got Cy Young Award votes for his first season with the Angels after never truly putting it together with the Orioles, it raised the question of whether shining up that trade came into play.
Bradish was rated No. 12 in the organization by Baseball America, with the same grade as No. 7 prospect Baumann and a higher overall grade but higher risk factor than Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin, who already had major league success on their resumes.
Baumann’s ongoing elbow troubles, which seem to have kept him off a minor league roster to start the season, and the struggles of Kremer and Akin so far this year, mean Bradish might truly be entering the minor league season as the third-best pitching prospect in the organization if a snapshot were taken right now.
Bradish becoming that kind of legitimate big league starter would likely be enough for the Orioles to claim success in the Bundy trade, with reliever Isaac Mattson poised to make his debut in the major league bullpen this year and Zach Peek and Kyle Brnovich in the low-minors and carrying potential themselves.
It’s a long way for a prospect to come without pitching in a game, but that’s what a year without minor league games will do. Bradish says the public proclamations of his promise by the organization are the ones that carry the most meaning for him.
“It’s definitely nice seeing that, but it also makes me want to work harder to prove them right on what they’re thinking and what they’re saying,” Bradish said.
Ramsey has been impressed with how Bradish has gone about his work since coming to the organization, but sees the esteem the Orioles’ front office holds Bradish in having the right kind of affect on how he’s going about his business this spring.
Said Ramsey: “There’s intent to the work with the focus of, ‘[Heck] yeah, I belong with those guys. I want to make sure I’m a part of this when this thing is going the right way.’”
What’s to come?
After a rare series win in Oakland, the Orioles move on to another infrequently visited house of horrors in Seattle.
The Mariners, along with the Kansas City Royals, are in later stages of rebuilds and having early success at the major league level without tapping their top prospects. Seattle has one of the game’s top prospects, Jarred Kelenic, biding his time at Triple-A Tacoma, and already has the reigning American League Rookie of the Year in Kyle Lewis in the outfield.
Seattle is staying the course with keeping Kelenic down for what are understood to be craven and cynical reasons. It’s a bad look, and a bad spot to be in. But it’s just another reminder of the decision the Orioles will soon have to make with top prospect Adley Rutschman, who at long last will begin his first full minor league season at Double-A Bowie on Tuesday.
What was good?
John Means might not qualify because good might not do him justice, but no one else comes close to the level he’s performing at this year. Any time an Orioles pitcher’s success is described as the best since Hall of Famer Jim Palmer did it, that’s pretty much unimpeachable. Means’ 1.70 ERA being the best of any Orioles starter in his first six starts since Palmer in 1977 qualifies as such.
Among the most notable facets of that is Means’ situational pitching. In half of his six starts, opposing hitters haven’t had a single plate appearance with a runner in scoring position. He’s allowed just two hits and a walk in 11 such plate appearances. Means’ clamp-down extends to when there’s a runner on base as well, with opponents collecting seven singles with 10 strikeouts and a walk in 38 plate appearances with runners on.
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The only extra-base hits Means has allowed — a double and five home runs — have come with the bases empty. That’s only one example of the maturity manager Brandon Hyde has spoken of. Means’ game management has improved along with his stuff, and the result is one of the best pitchers in baseball this season.
The Orioles had occasion to give all of Rio Ruiz, Pat Valaika and Ramón Urías time at second base over the past week with Freddy Galvis missing four games with adductor soreness, creating two spots for those three players.
Two things became clear: Ruiz might be the best defender in the bunch at second, and this group is really searching at the plate.
Ruiz had a pair of doubles playing second base April 20 in Miami, and in 10 games until his pinch-hit double in the ninth Sunday, the Orioles’ second baseman didn’t have an extra-base hit.
Any offense from that spot would be a bonus if the rest of the lineup was firing on all cylinders, but it’s not.
On the farm
Everything about the start of the minor league season is exciting, and should be enjoyed. If there’s one drawback, it’s that Baumann wasn’t listed on a break camp roster to head north. He missed the end of the alternate site camp with elbow soreness and was back throwing this winter after rehabbing it.
He didn’t appear in a game in his first major league spring training, though Hyde praised how he looked off a mound in workouts. The team hasn’t said why he’s not on a roster. Considering he might be the closest to major league ready of all their top pitching prospects who haven’t debuted yet, losing Baumann for any period of time would be a blow.