For Mets fans, the front office’s refusal to add a bullpen arm in free agency this year seemingly induces frustration and signals a lack of effort, a lack of creativity, or a lack of capital. For a fringe prospect Minor Leaguer who’s been in the system for half a decade, the refusal to add a bullpen piece thus far should say one thing: Door’s wide open. Among non-roster invitee pitchers coming to Major League Spring Training for the Mets in 2017, Chasen Bradford fits the bill of fringe system prospect looking to finally break in.
As far as prospect analysis goes, Bradford is enigmatic because there just isn’t much information out there about him. A 35th round pick in 2011, described by Amazin’ Avenue at the time as likely being “organizational fodder,” Bradford is not a prospect who gets any recognition, and therefore the resources to learn about him as a pitcher are thin. However, with the ambiguity surrounding the current bullpen outlook, it’s worth taking a look at Bradford and assessing what he could mean to the 2017 Mets.
As noted, Bradford was picked in the 35th round in 2011 after being lightly scouted his senior year at University of Central Florida, and the Mets immediately began developing him as a relief pitcher upon his signing. Given his stuff and his low draft selection, Bradford was destined to be a guy who must grind his way up through the Minors on outset.
He spent his 2011 season playing in the Appalachian League against mostly younger competition, pitching well enough to earn a promotion to Sally League the following year. After an excellent sophomore season in the Minors, Bradford earned a promotion to St. Lucie for the 2013 season, and it seemed he was beginning to make headway in the organization after spending two years in Low-A. As the archetypal underdog story goes, Bradford continued making headway in the Minors, continuing to earn promotions until he reached Vegas mid-season in 2014—one step away from the Majors.
Although his first stint in AAA was a success, pitching to a 3.52 ERA across 46 innings in 2014 and gaining some peripheral recognition as a guy who may one day crack the Majors, Bradford seemingly stalled the next two seasons in Vegas, where he is set to begin his fourth season in AAA entering 2017. But we all know by now that scouting the stat line in Vegas is a fool’s errand and we need to look beyond the superficial ERA stat to gauge a player’s success there. Despite unsightly ERAs in 2015 and 2016, the things Chase Bradford has done well in AAA the last three seasons offer glimpses of Major League potential.
Bradford describes his repertoire as a hard sinker/hard slider combination used to attack the strike zone and force batters to put the ball in play. The hard sinker/hard slider combo should not be misconstrued to assume he is blowing guys away. For Bradford, process is more important than velocity. His sinker sits in the low-90s meaning he needs to rely on heavy action and good control to get outs. Throughout his Minor League career, control has been Bradford’s calling card, averaging just 1.9 BB/9 over 355.1 innings pitched. Given the Mets’ organizational philosophy of pounding the strike zone, Bradford’s refusal to allow free bases, especially as a reliever, probably garners him some consideration.
More impressive still, unlike many pitchers who lose feel for their breaking stuff or allow the hitter-friendly PCL parks to get in their heads, Bradford has maintained excellent control in Las Vegas. Across 175.1 innings pitched in AAA, Bradford sports an uncanny 1.6 BB/9. Unfortunately for Bradford, his insistence on having opposing hitters put the ball in play is also the main culprit in his struggle to keep runs off the board. He allows nearly 4 more hits per 9 innings in AAA than he did in AA which has led to a 1.454 WHIP. Because he is not a strikeout pitcher, limiting damage once runners get on is an obstacle for Bradford. But Chase does what he can utilizing the sinker/slider combination to keep the ball in the park allowing 0.7 HR/9 during his time in AAA.
With a low walk rate and a low HR rate, it is safe to say Bradford’s 4.21 ERA in AAA is not a true representation of his abilities. The nature of pitching in the PCL hinders our ability to gauge Bradford’s Major League statistical outlook. However, Bradford offers intrigue as a potential bullpen workhorse. If control is Bradford’s calling card, durability is his foundation, pitching at least 60 innings each of the last 4 seasons. Regardless of his AAA ERA, Bradford has proven to be a steady, reliable presence in the bullpen at every Minor League stop by eating up middle relief innings and pounding the strike zone.
|Minors (6 seasons)||Minors||3.42||274||128||36||355.1||1.314||9.9||0.6||1.9||7.7||4.07|
|All Levels (6 Seasons)||3.31||284||132||37||367.0||1.292||9.8||0.6||1.9||7.7||4.14|
|AA (2 seasons)||Minors||1.38||43||28||12||52.0||1.135||7.8||0.2||2.4||7.4||3.07|
|AAA (3 seasons)||Minors||4.21||143||58||17||175.1||1.454||11.5||0.7||1.6||7.2||4.55|
Although he will most likely begin his 7th professional season in the Minors, Bradford has probably shed the organizational filler descriptor. He has proven himself as someone who can consistently give his team relief innings while not beating himself, and that is the type of pitcher who can mitigate a gap in talent to succeed in a Major League bullpen.
Effective relief pitching can be as much about mindset as it is about talent. Obviously Bradford has dealt with struggles along the way, especially in AAA. In an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal last season, Bradford discussed the difficulty of adapting his repertoire to Major League needs as dictated by the organization. Although he is capable of throwing in the mid-90s, which the organization desired, he lost feel for his stuff by throwing harder, and attributes his 2015 struggles to overthrowing and losing focus on what he does well to get outs. Working with Frank Viola, Bradford reconciled himself to the fact that his success derives from pounding the strike zone and forcing weak contact, not blowing batters away. So if we see Bradford this season, we can expect a pitcher who knows who he is and will confidently use his repertoire regardless of situation.
Bradford has a murky outlook regarding the 2017 Major League bullpen. Although competition for the bullpen in Spring Training should be open, Bradford exists on the fringes of consideration to go north. But because he has demonstrated the ability to limit walks, limit home runs, and provide substantial innings in the Minors, he’ll probably be on the shortlist for bullpen call-ups during the season. He may never be a high leverage reliever in the Majors, but given his Minor League track record, Bradford could have a future in the Majors as a pitcher who teams rely on to provide solid innings in middle relief.