After watching 20-year-old Kerry Wood throw a spring training game for the Chicago Cubs in 1998, then-Anaheim Angels manager Terry Collins extended a hand to Cubs manager Jim Riggleman and said, "Congratulations."
"For what?" Riggleman asked.
"If you've got five pitchers better than that guy," said Collins, knowing the Cubs planned to send Wood to the minors, "you're going to the World Series."
The Cubs did send Wood to the minors, but the plan didn't last long. He made one start there. When lefthanded reliever Bob Patterson pulled a calf muscle nine games into the regular season, Chicago replaced him by taking lefty Terry Mulholland out of the rotation. The Cubs summoned Wood to replace Mulholland. All Wood did was strike out 20 batters in his fifth major league game and win the Rookie of the Year Award.
Sometimes talent won't wait. Sometimes talent trumps the best of development intentions. Sometimes it laughs at the preferred financial savings of waiting to start a rookie's service time clock. Dwight Gooden in 1984. Ken Griffey Jr. in 1989. Wood in 1998. Albert Pujols in 2001. Jason Heyward in 2010. Jose Fernandez in 2013. All of them were too talented in spring training to hold back.
And now there is Archie Bradley.
Bradley is the powerful righthander for the Arizona Diamondbacks who has created the most buzz of any young player this spring. He is just 21 years old, has thrown only 21 games above A ball and has thrown just 6⅓ innings this spring. And yet he has been so impressive in camp that he just may be writing his own ticket to a spot in Arizona's Opening Day rotation. He has struck out nine of the 26 batters he has faced while allowing only three hits and no runs.
Bradley's path to the big leagues may open if Bronson Arroyo, who has been sidelined with a bulging disk in his back, needs more time to build his arm strength. But Arizona general manager Kevin Towers has been so impressed with Bradley that he said he hasn't ruled out carrying him regardless of what happens with Arroyo, who is penciled into a rotation with Patrick Corbin, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley and Brandon McCarthy.
"In a perfect world it would be good to get him more innings down in the minors," Towers said, "but if he keeps throwing like he [has], how can you? We don't have anybody on our staff who has his stuff. With him and Corbin, that's a pretty good left-right combo.
"He's been very impressive. He's mature beyond his years. Maybe it's the football background. He doesn't carry himself like a 21-year-old. He reminds me a little bit of [Jake] Peavy. It's a different body type, but the confidence level is impressive. He just says, 'Keep throwing challenges my way and I'll beat them.'"
Bradley throws a wicked knuckle-curve and a mid-90s fastball that has to be seen and heard to be believed. "You can hear the seams," Towers said. "I was watching him throw some live BP, and as the ball comes out of his fingers you can hear that sound."
At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Bradley throws his fastball with such ferocity that he can throw it at the bottom of the strike zone and not lose plane on the pitch, surprising hitters and even umpires because it stays in the zone, heavy and hard.
"You see good hitters give up on his fastball," said former Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez, "but it stays there for a strike. I mean, he went right through a Rockies lineup with their best hitters in it."
Said Towers, "He reminds me of Chris Carpenter: a big, strong, sturdy guy who squares up his shoulders and comes right at you. Catchers say you really have to stay with him. That fastball looks like it's going to be in the dirt and it just keeps riding, almost handcuffing them at times."
Bradley is exactly the type of impact pitcher Arizona needs to contend in the deep NL West. Last year only the Brewers and Rockies had a worse strikeout rate among NL rotations than Arizona. Bradley is not a finished product. His changeup needs work and while his knucke-curve is fiendish, he tends to get hitters to swing and miss when it's out of the zone. Said Towers, "If he gets in the big leagues he's probably going to have to throw that for a strike. That'll start running up his pitch count if he doesn't throw it for a strike."
Okay, that's your official disclaimer. Gooden, the greatest pitching prodigy ever, didn't hold runners well. If you want perfection no prospect would ever be promoted. What's important is that there is no denying the stuff, and how Bradley has made major league hitters look this spring.
Teams typically agonize over when to promote a star pitching prospect, even before you start weighing issues such as service time that could bring an extra year of arbitration or a lose a year of contractual control. It used to be that teams wanted starting pitchers to accumulate 500 minor league innings before they were deemed ready. Some want them to work on fielding their position and holding runners. Some fear that if a pitcher is promoted and struggles, he may have to be sent back down. As the old line goes, "You want to make sure when you bring him up you're bringing him up to stay." Hogwash. Why? That never made sense to me -- as if someone would be "ruined" just because he needs more seasoning. If that were true, chances are you didn't have a very good pitcher in the first place.
"I think it's good for them," Towers said about demoting players from the majors. "It was good for Corbin. I think they almost need to go back down. They know what they need to do to get better. And once they come back that second time they are more comfortable. The first time, it's survival mode. Every outing is like the seventh game of the World Series."
Towers has a major decision to make. He knows Bradley makes his team better and that he can pitch in the majors right now, but he also knows more minor league innings would be the preferred development path. But every time Towers sees Bradley he sees Tim Lincecum, and what Giants assistant GM Dick Tidrow said about the team's decision to promote Lincecum in 2007, a bold move if only because the Giants could have saved themselves millions of dollars if they waited two weeks to start his service clock.
"Dick Tidrow put it as good as anybody," Towers said. "I remember when they brought Lincecum up. I said, 'Dick, when you do know? Is there a threshold?'
"He said, 'You know what? Hitters are the truest indications of a pitcher's stuff. If they're taking bad swings, elevate him. Why waste bullets down in the minors when you can have those bullets winning games for you in the big leagues? Screw Fresno. Screw Shreveport. If they're taking bad swings, he's ready.'
"Tidrow told Sabes [GM Brian Sabean], 'He will make hitters look the same way in San Diego as he does in Fresno. Now, where do you want him to be?"
The Diamondbacks have scheduled Bradley to pitch March 21 in Sydney in an exhibition against Team Australia, before Arizona's two regular season games there against the Dodgers. The exposure, they figure, can only be good for him. It still would leave him as a possibility to pitch one of the first five games of the regular season back in the states. Towers and manager Kirk Gibson have two more weeks to decide what to do. Perhaps the decision depends on the condition of Arroyo, or perhaps it simply depends on whether Bradley is too good not to keep.
"If you think he has a chance to win 15 games," Towers said, "and you have a chance to win, why not?"