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The Mystery of Zach Braddock

Photo: Jeff Hanisch – US Presswire

The Brewers called up infielder Brooks Conrad from Nashville today, replacing the injured Mat Gamel. Conrad didn’t have a spot on the 40-man roster, so somebody had to go. As a result, the club released left-handed reliever Zack Braddock, bringing an end (at least in Milwaukee) to what was once a very promising career.

This move comes as a big surprise to everyone: Less than two years ago, Braddock was one of the best pitchers on the Brewers’ staff at age 22, leading fans to dream about what he could be several years down the road. However, a series of problems that included minor injuries, a sleep disorder, and undisclosed personal issues got in the way. Today, we’re going to try and recap Braddock’s time in (and out of) Milwaukee, and look at what went wrong.

Braddock made his debut in the Brewers bullpen May 23, 2010, to a fair amount of excitement by those who follow the team — he was the 4th-best prospect in the system, according to Fangraphs, and had generated obscene strikeout rates at every level of the minors. Also, his low-to-mid 90s fastball (coming from the left side) and sharp slider led many people to see a future shutdown reliever, on a team that (at the time) desperately needed one.

Braddock spent the rest of the season with the Brewers, and his performance made the case for a larger role in the bullpen for the next year. In 2010, he threw 33.2 innings as a member of the Brewers, striking out 41 and posting a 2.90 FIP. Even better, hitters couldn’t touch his 93-95 mph fastball. When he reported to camp the next Spring, he was a lock for a big-league job, with many people only wondering if he would be a future closer, or “just” a setup man. The only real concern was whether his reconstructed elbow would hold up long-term.

That spring, however, things began to go downhill. Braddock suffered from a host of minor injuries in camp, including a sinus infection and being bitten by a scorpion. He started the 2011 season seemingly healthy, and was pitching very effectively until his season was interrupted. On May 3, it was announced that Braddock was diagnosed with a sleep disorder and was heading to the 15-day DL.  

The Brewers and Braddock stated that he was taking medication, and was taking time off for treatment and figuring out how to deal with the disorder. Around a month later, he was back, pitching with his usual efficacy. However, there were some disturbing signs: All year, Braddock’s velocity had been down one or two ticks, and his always-shaky control was a little worse than usual. During a two-week stretch in July, the wheels completely came off, and Braddock was sent back to the minors, where he stayed for the rest of the year. 

The next spring (2012), Braddock entered camp as one of many pitchers competing for a big-league bullpen role. Again, he was hampered by health issues — this time a stomach virus — but was able to pitch seven decent innings. He was cut in the last few days of camp (March 29) and sent to AAA Nashville.

After that, what happened with Braddock is, and probably will remain, a mystery. Braddock didn’t play for Nashville this season (he was on the “inactive list”) and, according to Adam McCalvy, wasn’t with the team. He was released today, just five weeks after being sent down and several months shy of his 25th birthday.

The circumstances surrounding Braddock’s downfall and release are very, very strange, and there’s little sense to be made of it other than the fact that there are probably a lot of things we don’t know. Teams will give contracts to guys in the independent leagues because they are left-handed and could once throw in the low 90s; it makes no sense, from the information we have, to release a lefty who was so good less than two years ago and still would appear to have promise. There are probably issues here that we’ll never fully know, so all we can do is wish Braddock and the Brewers the best.