The sky was the limit for Bryan Bonnell. He was a projectable 6’5″, 190 right-hander coming out of high school with a sinking fastball touching 92 MPH and plenty more velocity to come. He was good enough to be selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 31st round of the 2012 MLB Draft, but he instead chose to honor his commitment to UNLV. He was intending to be drafted much higher three years later.
After appearing as a reliever and backup first baseman his freshman year, Bonnell entered UNLV’s rotation as a sophomore and delivered great results. His 2014 debut was electrifying as he struck out 11 in a complete-game effort, and it proved to be one of three complete games for him on the season. He finished 7-5 with a 2.90 ERA in 16 starts and 114.2 IP (over 7 innings per outing), and though the strikeouts didn’t persist, he was walking nobody and forcing a ton of groundballs. Bonnell was well on his way to the high draft slot that he was hoping for.
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However, then 2015 began and wound up being just about Bonnell’s worst-case scenario. He wound up going just 1-5 with a 7.39 ERA in 5 starts, 8 relief appearances, and 28 innings pitched. Those numbers were mind-bogglingly bad for a pitcher who had entered the season with such high expectations. The UNLV website says that he battled through injuries of some kind, and he really should not have been pitching if he ended up performing that badly. In any event, now Bonnell needs to decide what’s next for his career. Will he return to UNLV and try to rebound or will he sign with the Tampa Bay Rays and hope they can do their magic?
The Rays made Bonnell their 36th round pick because they were impressed by the potential that he had shown and want the chance to help him get back on track. At this best, Bonnell got excellent sink on his fastball, which ranged mostly from 90 to 93 MPH. He also did a great job commanding it down in the zone, and combining that with its natural movement made it extremely difficult for hitters to square it up.
Bonnell could never find consistency with his curveball–the Rays may give him a slider in pro ball–but the pitch he added to replace it, a splitter occasionally described as a split-change, showed flashes. Bonnell was never a big swing-and-miss guy as he struck out just 3.8 batters per 9 innings in his strong 2014, but when he did get whiffs, many of them came because his splitter came from a nice arm action and finished with sharp late break. Bonnell has plenty of work ahead of him as he hopes to make it into a plus pitch, but at the very least, he has a chance to get it there.
Though Bryan Bonnell’s injuries certainly cloud his future, as does the fact that he lost his command entirely this year, the ability he showed as recently as last season was impossible for the Tampa Bay Rays to ignore, especially down in the 36th round. The risk that comes with him is enormous, but what does that matter when we are talking about a pick so late in the draft? In the coming weeks, the Rays will try to sell Bonnell on the fact that they can bring his career back from the dead. Whether he signs or not will demonstrate whether their endeavor was successful.
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