The Seattle Mariners are a baseball team with many ignominious distinctions.
Longest active postseason drought in North American pro sports. Only franchise to never appear in a World Series. Worst-catching franchise in modern baseball history, as Lookout Landing’s Isabelle Minasian recently observed. Most unsatisfactory hot dog-to-bun ratio at any pro ballpark (okay that one I made up, but you had to think about it).
Here’s one more for the hopper: greatest player ever traded away as a Player to be Named Later.
There have been a handful of noteworthy PTBNLs throughout MLB history: Shoeless Joe Jackson, Moisés Alou, Michael Brantley, Jason Schmidt, Scott Brosius, Coco Crisp, and even Trea Turner (albeit on a bit of a technicality).
And then, at the top of the list, there’s the imposing DH from the DR with prodigious power and a pertinacious proclivity for pummeling pelotas. His name is David Ortiz.
Long before he became Big Papi, Ortiz was a slightly smaller papi signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Mariners. After a promising start to his young career culminating in Single-A, Ortiz (who throughout his Mariners minors days was mistakenly listed as David Arias), was traded to the Minnesota Twins in 1996 as the PTBNL in a deal for a big league third baseman. The M’s hoped that this move would put them over the edge in a competitive pennant race with the Texas Rangers. It did not.
Ortiz ultimately found a home in Boston, blossoming into the second-greatest designated hitter of all time — (yeah I said second-greatest, how do you like them apples). The Mariners, on the other hand, traded away one of the most iconic players the game has ever seen as an afterthought for a miscellaneous dude who played 28 forgettable games for the franchise. (If you’re wondering who that player was, don’t worry about it, it’s not even worth mentioning).
You can probably guess where this is going.
In the midst of a bizarre, pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Seattle Mariners made a trade with the San Diego Padres. No, not the trade you probably remember that brought Ty France, Luis Torrens, Taylor Trammell, and Andrés Muñoz to the Pacific Northwest in exchange for a pair of Austins and a Dan — no, this was a much smaller trade, just one day later, that barely received media coverage in the flurry of deadline moves.
Here’s what happened: the Mariners shipped righty reliever Taylor Williams, a former waiver claim from the Brewers whom the Mariners had added to The Pile™ the previous offseason, to the San Diego Padres. Williams flashed enough promise for the M’s in 2020 (12.27 K/9) to earn a call from a Padres team that was contending for a title.
The return in that trade? A PTBNL.
Of course, we’re not here to talk about David Ortiz, or whoever the guy was who the Mariners received in exchange for David Ortiz (again, it doesn’t matter, don’t ask), or Taylor Williams. (Though if you’re curious about what Taylor Williams is up to these days, he was recently picked up by the San Francisco Giants on a minor league deal, after flaming out first with the Padres and then the Marlins).
We’re here to talk about the M’s newest notable PTBNL: Matt Brash. And boy oh boy is there a lot to talk about.
The Brash and the Beautiful
Every discussion involving Matt Brash tends to begin with the stuff. Because the stuff, well, it is very good.
As Lookout Landing’s Joe Doyle initially noted when Brash joined the franchise in August 2020, the Mariners’ new addition boasted the kind of raw profile that keeps Jerry Dipoto up at night.
Brash is listed at an unassuming 6’1, 170 lbs, but gets extension off the mound to a degree that would make Inspector Gadget blush (Brash’s releases the ball around 6’6 in front of the bump, which is noteworthy considering that downhill extension for most pitchers mirrors their height).
Furthermore, Brash’s calling card in the minors has been his extreme spin rate on his fastball and slider — the former he pumps in consistently at 95-97 (touching 99) with rise and run, the latter, his trademark pitch, sits mid-80’s with heavy breaking action and occasionally nausea-inducing lateral sweep.
Here he is discussing his slider grip, which he learned from a college teammate:
As Brash suggests here, his breaking ball has only grown more devastating — and distinctive — as his velocity has ratcheted up.
In his first appearance this spring against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Brash threw a slider that was reportedly clocked at 3,158 rpm, which approaches the upper limits of what a slider can and should do. (For context, the average slider in MLB last season was 2,417).
Despite Brash’s decidedly slider-y arm action, many on the internet have reasonably disputed that this pitch appears like more of a curveball, or perhaps a slurve. (In an extremely limited sample, Baseball Savant actually refers to this pitch as a knuckle curve, but as analysts Tom Tango and JJ Cooper noted in the exchange below, the system simply needs more data to make a stronger assessment):
At Baseball America we have gone back and forth on describing Brash's breaking ball a few times. He throws a knuckle curve as well so we have called it a slider but it seems to be one of those wonderful unique pitches.— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) March 21, 2022
To opposing hitters, this distinction is semantics.
When Brash is really cooking, his heater/slider combo pairs up for some pure whiffle-esque mayhem. Or as Rob Friedman of Pitching Ninja puts it:
Matt Brash's Disgusting Stuff.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 3, 2021
What in the name of Kerry Wood is this Filth? pic.twitter.com/QuORpXkHuM
(Don’t worry — there are plenty more magnificent highlights available curated by Pitching Ninja, which appears to moonlight these days as a Matt Brash superfan account).
Brash has also begun to mix in a changeup, which runs glove-side, and has proven successful especially against lefties. Whether or not Brash can continue to refine the command of his fastball, while mixing in his secondary offerings, will likely be the determining factor of if he can stick in the rotation long-term. More on that in a bit.
Brash from the Past
Scrutinizing Brash’s tantalizing profile (and ogling his 2021 film), it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when Matt Brash WASN’T anointed as one of baseball’s most dynamic pitching prospects.
A fourth round selection by the Padres in 2019 out of Niagara University, Brash had obvious upside but was an otherwise unheralded prospect without a proven track record against top competition.
Brash only tossed 5.1 innings in the Padres organization after being drafted, but flashed potential despite long arm action and an at-times violent delivery. And though Brash didn’t see any competitive action during the cancelled 2020 minor league season, it wasn’t long before the M’s realized what they had on their hands.
Fast-forward to 2021: The Year of Matt Brash.
In his first season pitching professionally in the Mariners system, Brash’s fastball velo leaped from the low to mid-90’s as the young righty obliterated every expectation imaginable. Making a seamless jump mid-season from High-A Everett to Double-A Arkansas, Brash sported an incendiary 13.1 K/9 over 97.1 innings, while cutting down walks at each stop.
Along the way he even contributed to a no-hitter (chipping in a perfect 6 innings with 11 K’s before surrendering a walk in the 7th), and was eventually named the Mariners’ Jamie Moyer Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Brash’s meteoric season culminated in a September promotion to big leagues during the Mariners’ exhilarating (yet ultimately doomed) playoff push.
Though he never actually saw the field for the M’s in 2021, his selection to the 40-man and brief sojourn on the active roster made the writing on the wall crystal clear: Matt Brash was going to contribute to the Seattle Mariners sooner rather than later.
Brash to the Future
Matt Brash’s stratospheric 2021 season also put him squarely in the sights of various top prospect lists to kick off 2022. Here are just a couple highlights:
- #98 by MLB Pipeline
- #62 by Prospects Live
- #45 by Baseball America (he closed 2021 having just snuck onto BA’s end-of-season list at #100)
Matt Brash has already taken the mound twice this spring, and the results both times have been... impressive.
Matt Brash with an elevated fastball out of the stretch for his first strikeout this afternoon.— Daniel Kramer (@DKramer_) March 21, 2022
Velo: 97.7 mph
Spin: 2,295 RPM pic.twitter.com/a2NwzA56pM
In his second spring training outing yesterday afternoon against the Oakland A’s, Brash put the whole package together, striking out six batters across three clean innings, surrendering nary a walk nor a hit. Spotless box score aside, Brash certainly passed the eye test:
At this point, the biggest question mark regarding Matt Brash isn’t his stuff or his raw ability. It’s where he slots in at the major league level.
Between his electric fastball and slider tandem, Brash already has the skillset to step in as an impact arm out of the M’s pen today (a feat for any prospect with only about 100 professional innings to his name).
If Matt Brash is to succeed as a starter in MLB, however, he will most likely need to solidify his fastball command and/or prove that he is more than a two-pitch guy. That said, he’s gunning for the rotation, and it would be a shock if he doesn’t get a legitimate look in 2022. (There’s speculation that he’s done enough to start the season as the Mariners’ #5 starter, perhaps even piggybacking with George Kirby, as they did in their first two spring training games).
But no matter what role he plays, this Player to Be Named Later will have a legitimate chance to help change the story of the Seattle Mariners — one mesmerizing highlight at a time.