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40 in 40: Brennan Bernardino beat the odds

It’s been a long, winding road for the lefty, and he may have finally found a big league home.

Los Angeles Angels v Seattle Mariners - Game Two Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The odds said that Brennan Bernardino shouldn’t be here.

And yet.

It was a longshot right from the jump. Drafted as a senior from Cal State Dominguez in 2014 all the way in the 26th round by the Reds, there was scant information on Bernardino, let alone a formal scouting report. He started his pro career in Rookie ball with the Billings Mustangs, dominating to a 1.01 ERA across 26.2 innings, while also getting positive marks from Doug Gray over at Reds Minor Leaguers:

Coming from the left side he showed average overall velocity, with slightly above-average peak velocity in this game, topping out at 91 MPH. What stood out to me though was the nice armside action that his fastball had. His main secondary pitch, and the only one I saw him throw was a big curveball with 12-6 breaking action in the low 70’s. He goes to the pitch often, starting it out in the strikezone and running it across the plate and out of the zone to lefties or under the hands of righties.

Still, though, the Majors were miles away. Bernardino toiled in the lower ranks of Cincinnati’s farm system the next four years, reaching Double-A Pensacola in 2017 and capping off that season with a strong ten-inning showing in the Arizona Fall League. Always adept at getting ground balls, his solid results belied the fact that he was always a bit old for whatever level he was in, save for an emergency two-game stint with Triple-A Louisville in 2015. 2018 saw him repeat at Double-A, and the results were... not great.

Despite career-best marks in strikeout and walk rates, his strand rate plummeted by nearly thirty percentage points en route to an ERA north of 6 over 20 innings. Yikes! Some of that is bad luck, to be sure - the gap between his ERA and FIP neared a full three points - but Bernardino also saw his grounders shrink, and at 26, he wasn’t getting any younger. His final outing in the Reds organization was particularly grim, allowing five runs to cross in 1.2 innings on June 9th. A month later, he was released, with the big leagues still far out of reach.

Ever the grinder, however, he quickly latched on in indy ball, logging six games (five starts, for the first time in his pro career) with the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the American Association of Professional Baseball. The strikeouts vanished, but he kept his walk rate to a tiny 5.1%, which was enough for a second shot with affiliated ball in 2019 - this time with Cleveland. It wasn’t meant to be, though: Bernardino pitched in just five games in High-A and Double-A before his release in mid-May. Now, it felt like the dream had died. Two organizations and a stint in indy ball by age 27? I don’t blame anyone for thinking his time had come.

Not so. He quickly latched on with the Toros de Tijuana in the Mexican League, and immediately turned heads. Allowing just three homers across 33.2 innings, his strikeout-to-walk ratio jumped to 4.3, and he became a fixture in Mexican baseball, playing with the Charros de Jalisco for the next three winter ball seasons, and was part of the championship 2021-22 squad. In an interview during the 2021-22 season, he called Mexico his second home, specifically shouting out the fans’ abundance of energy.

He once again opened 2022 with the Toros, continuing to put up strong results as a starting pitcher, and the Mariners came calling. Signing on June 27th, Bernardino immediately joined the Rainiers’ bullpen, and rattled off a string of impressive outings - in seven games, he struck out an eye-popping 40.5% of batters, didn’t allow a single homer, and walked just three across 11.1 innings. Just a month after coming aboard, the Mariners called again, this time with the news every single minor league player hopes for.

I mean, what a journey. Eight years since being drafted, three years in Mexico, and even a pit stop in Winnipeg weren’t enough for Bernardino to hang it up, and he got into his first game the very next day in Houston in the tenth inning at age 30. His debut was under unfortunate circumstances, with a suspect call costing him his first strikeout and the Manfred man forcing him to wear the loss, but none that mattered in the moment. Brennan Bernardino was a Major Leaguer.

Optioned back to Tacoma upon the arrival of Luis Castillo, Bernardino continued to put up excellent results, and got the call back on two occasions: once as the 27th man for a double-header on August 6th, where he allowed two runs (one earned) over two innings in the nightcap, and the other for a quick 24-hour stint just a few days later, still on the hunt for his first big league strikeout. He didn’t make an appearance in the playoffs, either, but was named as a taxi squad member for both the Wild Card series and ALDS, and was on the field at T-Mobile Park for player introductions before Game 3. Over the offseason, he’s returned to the familiar haunts of Jalisco, and has been on a roll, working to a 2.34 ERA over nine starts with just one home run allowed.

For the first time in his career, there’s a potential spot on an MLB roster for him. With Justus Sheffield recently designated for assignment, Bernardino and Gabe Speier are the sole left-handed relievers on Seattle’s 40-man roster. Things could certainly change between now and pitchers and catchers reporting, and the three-batter rule has all but eliminated the lefty specialist role, but after finally cracking the Majors and coming off a dominant run in the notorious hitter’s paradise of the PCL, it certainly isn’t out of the question that we’ll see Bernardino log some time in Seattle’s bullpen in 2023. With his newer experience as a starter, he could give the ‘pen some length, and even more encouragingly, he’s back to keeping the ball on the ground: in 32.2 innings with the Rainiers, he notched a 57.1% GB%, best on the team out of anyone with at least 30 innings pitched.

Is it likely that he’ll crack the Opening Day roster? That outlook is a little hazy. But Brennan Bernardino has beaten the odds his entire career, and with his first 2.1 big league innings under his belt, I’m excited to see what he can bring to the table - and to see him cross “first major league strikeout” off of his list of accomplishments.