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Taj Bradley: Champ or Chump for Fantasy Baseball?

Exciting names for fantasy baseball have been coming up rapidly lately, with Brett Baty, Zach Neto, Edouard Julien, and Taj Bradley all generating buzz. Bradley is the only pitcher of the bunch, so he merits further attention.

Bradley has a 5.40 ERA after his MLB debut, but the surface stats mask an outstanding 8:1 K/BB ratio and the fact he earned a win for his efforts. More importantly, his MiLB resume and scouting pedigree are impressive at first glance and even more so if you dig into the details.

Bradley is rostered in only 28% of Yahoo! leagues after being demoted to Triple-A (Durham) following his spot start, but he is widely expected to replace Jeffrey Springs in Tampa Bay's rotation after the latter's arm injury. Here is a closer look at why now is the time to roster Bradley in redraft leagues.

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Taj Bradley Has Big League Stuff

The first thing we should look at for any pitcher is whether he has big-league stuff, and Bradley delivers. Per his MLB Pipeline scouting report, Bradley's arsenal begins with a fastball averaging 94-96 mph that touches 98. He has plus command of his heater and it has late life, averaging 2,332 RPM in his big league debut.

Bradley calls his best secondary pitch a cutter, but some scouts call it a slider. Either way, it plays well off of his heater and generates the swing-and-miss that fantasy managers crave. Bradley rounds out his repertoire with a split-fingered change as a fading option against LHB and a show-me curve generally clocked in the mid-70s.

Bradley is regarded as an excellent athlete, giving him a repeatable delivery that maximizes the consistency of all of his stuff. As a whole, this package seems primed for immediate success.


The Scouting Pedigree of Taj Bradley

Bradley was young for the 2018 draft class, and the Rays didn't select him until the 5th round. However, he experienced a velocity spike at the alternative training site during the COVID-19 season and emerged as a legitimate prospect in 2021. He led MiLB with a 1.83 ERA across two Single-A levels in 2021 and started for the AL in the All-Star Futures Game last year.

MLB Pipeline gives Bradley's fastball a 65 and his cutter a 60 on the 20-80 scouting scale, giving him two plus pitches immediately. His change is a solid 50, and it all plays up with 60-grade control. His curve only earned a 40, but Bradley is listed as the top prospect in the Rays organization and 18th overall.

FanGraphs largely concurs, giving Bradley 60 grades on his fastball and "slider." The 50-grade command is expected to improve to 60 in time, and his changeup earns a 45 today but 55 in the future. Again, the curve is 40-grade. They rank Bradley as the second-best prospect in Tampa's organization and 37th overall.

Both scouting reports are glowing, and Bradley only becomes more exciting when you consider what he has done on the farm.


The MiLB Resume of Taj Bradley

Bradley's MiLB career got exciting in 2022. Pitching for Double-A (Montgomery), Bradley posted a 1.70 ERA and 3.75 xFIP in 74 1/3 IP. His 30.9 K% was backed by a 14.4 SwStr%, suggesting dominant stuff ready to play at the MLB level. His 6.3 BB% was well within the acceptable range as well.

Bradley benefited from a .266 BABIP, but his profile might support it moving forward. Bradley was a fly ball pitcher (46.8 FB%) with a knack for inducing pop-ups (27.2 IFFB%), a recipe for BABIP success used by noteworthy aces like Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. The secret is typically a high-spin fastball that also suppresses HR/FB, and Bradley checked that box too with a 4.9% mark.

The performance earned Bradley a promotion to Triple-A (Durham), where he pitched to a 3.66 ERA and 4.64 xFIP over 59 IP. His 21.5 K% and 12.4 SwStr% both took significant steps backward, but his 6.1 BB% remained solid and the BABIP suppression skills were still present (.271 BABIP, 41.6 FB%, 20.8 IFFB%). His 13.9% HR/FB doesn't jump off the page, but it's worth considering his environment.

The minor leagues have traditionally mixed pitcher's and hitter's parks just like the majors have, but the High Minors as a whole have become extremely hitter-friendly in recent years. Major projection systems like ZiPS are spitting out Triple-A ERAs as MLEs (Major League Equivalencies), and this changes how fantasy managers should evaluate minor leaguers.

Great offensive numbers on the farm should be taken with several grains of salt, just like we don't assume Rockies players are going to the Hall of Fame if they hit .300 at Coors Field. If a pitcher succeeds in any capacity, we have to stand up and take notice.

Bradley posted solid ERAs and ERA estimators at both of his High Minors stops, suggesting that he is ready for the rigors of an MLB rotation. That 13.9% HR/FB was better than the Triple-A average, suggesting that his contact suppression is a skill more than luck.

While Bradley only pitched seven innings at Triple-A this year, his 26.7 K% and 17 SwStr% were both better than his work there last season. Yes, it's an extremely small sample. You can't fake great stuff though, even for one start.


Taj Bradley Pitches for the Rays

The final feather in Bradley's cap is the team he pitches for. The Rays organization is constantly churning out flamethrowers capable of succeeding in a variety of roles, and Bradley looks to continue that trend. If he needs help with something, fantasy managers should be confident the Rays will figure it out.

Likewise, the Rays are a contending team. They might not be 14-2 good, but they're solid contenders who should give Bradley a good chance at a W every time out.

Bradley is by far the most exciting of the recent call-ups in this author's estimation and his pre-planned demotion to Triple-A seems to have tempered the hype around him, making the 22-year-old an easy Champ.

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