VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals are not quite sure what they have in right-hander Michael Brady, the lesser-known of the two pitchers they acquired from the Los Angeles Angels for Yunel Escobar. Brady doesn’t know exactly what the Nationals are getting either.
Light-hitting college infielders drafted in the 24th round do not normally end up pitching in major league spring training at nearly 29 years old as Brady has.
“If you had asked me a few years ago if I’d be in this clubhouse as a pitcher,” Brady said. “I’d say no way. That’s crazy.”
Brady was happy to get drafted at all when the then-Florida Marlins chose him in the 24th round of the 2009 draft. He had played four years at the University of California, a self-described “defensive specialist” at shortstop and third base who hit .260 with four home runs as a senior.
“I always had a pretty good arm. I was a good defensive player. That’s why I was in the lineup, always toward the bottom,” Brady said. “I bunted a lot.”
But Brady flashed power and that strong arm, which were enough to get him drafted but not enough to make it as a professional position player. He hit .034 with the Marlins’ Gulf Coast League team. Then a fastball hit him in the face, required an implant, and left him with a concussion. He recovered but did not make a team as an infielder in the spring of 2010. The Marlins asked him to catch instead.
So Brady, who was 23 then and had never caught before, put on the gear, his entire baseball career at an unexpected crossroads. The first time he squinted through the catcher’s mask, Brady looked up at a 6-foot-4 right-hander named Arquimedes Caminero, now of the Pirates. Caminero’s fastball averages 98 mph.
“It was terrible. He nearly broke my thumb,” Brady said. “The next guy was this lefty throwing 95, 96, and some of them were halfway, just hitting me in the face. Even though I gave [catching] a month, the first day I kind of knew.”
Brady had pitched in high school, so he went to the Marlins’ player development staff with a polite ultimatum: He did not want to endure the grueling and likely unfruitful process of learning to catch at 23, but would love a chance as a pitcher. If he couldn’t, he would walk away. The Marlins’ player development staff decided to convert him.
Brady headed to short-season ball in Jamestown, N.Y. He made 23 appearances before he allowed a run.
“I had no idea what was going to happen,” said the 6-foot Brady, who turns 29 on March 21. “I didn’t know if I was good or bad or what. I could control the ball somewhat. Every year I just tried to get better. Every year I find myself in a pretty good position to continue to play. It’s been a while now.”
Dan Jennings, now an assistant to Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, was an assistant general manager for the Marlins at the time. He remembers Brady began to close in high Class A, and his “tenacity” and “cool demeanor” impressed the coaching staff. Year by year, level by level, Brady climbed through the Marlins’ system. He did not have “standard closer’s stuff,” Jennings said, but he “kept doing the job and defying the odds.”
Brady climbed to Class AA but landed on waivers early in 2014. The Angels claimed him and shuffled him between Class AA Arkansas and Class AAA Salt Lake City, then tried him as a starter in 2015, unsure of what he might be able to do in that role. Nationals scouts reported good things. Right-hander Trevor Gott, 23, was the better-known of the two pitchers the Nationals received in the Escobar trade, but Brady was intriguing.
“He’s got an above-average fastball. He’s got a cutter that our scouts rated well. He’s a converted shortstop so sometimes it takes a little longer,” Nationals director of player development Mark Scialabba said. “. . . Right now, we’re just getting our hands on him. We like what we’re seeing, and hopefully he has a role for us in the major leagues soon.”
Brady threw his first inning as a National on Sunday in Jupiter, Fla., against the St. Louis Cardinals: scoreless, with one hit and one strikeout. Manager Dusty Baker lauded Brady’s command, which is exactly what got him here in the first place. Jennings called Brady a “strike-throwing machine,” though most pitchers do not manufacture their strikes the way he does.
When the former infielder winds up, he throws elbows and legs at hitters before the ball, an unorthodox herky-jerky delivery. Out comes the ball, from somewhere in the chaos, but importantly, it comes from the same somewhere every time.
“The one thing early on that I’ve seen is how well he repeats his delivery,” Nationals assistant general manager Doug Harris said. “. . . He’s really consistent with where he is throughout the delivery. His body awareness is really good.”
That Brady started pitching at 23 means his arm has endured fewer pitches, innings, and seasons than most 29-year-olds. That he is 29 and not yet an established big leaguer raises questions.
“The perceptions ingrained in baseball, when you say to someone you’re 29, it doesn’t look good,” Brady said. “. . . That seems like, you would think, this guy’s been around so long and he hasn’t made it yet. He isn’t going to get any better.
“But I feel like I am getting better because I haven’t been pitching 10 years. I think the Nationals understand that.”