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Prospects reflect on debuting in 2020

Bailey, Stephenson, Brubaker shine in first stints with big clubs
Brandon Bailey, Tyler Stephenson and JT Brubaker already have made an impact in the Majors. (Tammy Tucker/MiLB.com, Bryan Woolston/AP, Jeff Roberson/AP)
@AndrewAtBatt
August 3, 2020

The words "new normal" have become a major part of the lexicon eight months into 2020. They apply to just about every aspect of daily life and baseball by extension. With the abbreviated Major League season underway, a slew of promising prospects seem to be making their debuts nightly. A

The words "new normal" have become a major part of the lexicon eight months into 2020. They apply to just about every aspect of daily life and baseball by extension.

With the abbreviated Major League season underway, a slew of promising prospects seem to be making their debuts nightly. A few of these players shared their experiences on returning to the field and getting their first cups of coffee in The Show with MiLB.com.

Tyler Stephenson, Cincinnati Reds

July 26 felt like a relatively regular Sunday at the Reds' alternate site at Prasco Park for Tyler Stephenson. He'd been working out with the taxi squad when Mike Moustakas was placed on the injured list, leaving a spot open on the roster.

MLB.com's No. 100 overall prospect was on his way to the Majors.

"It's been pretty crazy, but it's also been a dream come true," Stephenson said. "I would say to get the opportunity to get up and make my debut and obviously with everything that happened, it's just, it's really been just a crazy week."

Stephenson made it to the field as the first inning got underway, but he had to wait a day to get into a game.

It had been four-and-a-half months since his last Spring Training at-bat in the Cactus League, where the third-ranked Reds prospect more than held his own with a 1.250 OPS through 12 games. But with camp cut short, Stephenson went back home to Georgia and worked out with some local professional players.

"I felt really good with my catching in Spring Training. And obviously, I didn't want to lose that," he said. "I wanted to continue to build on that. ... It was really a good thing obviously to be able to catch guys on a daily basis and on a weekly basis. ... That's probably the first time I've been home during that time, the summer, in who knows how long."

Playing MLB The Show enabled him to score a 99 overall playable card for himself and get to know others in the game community. On July 27, though, Stephenson was in the The Show for real against the Cubs. He entered in the seventh inning as a defensive replacement for Curt Casali and came to the plate second in the bottom half.

The 2015 first-round pick laid off a first-pitch curveball from the right-hander, then cracked a belt-high fastball deep over the center-field wall for a 416-foot homer. He checked off his first hit, long ball, run and RBI all in one fell swoop.

"This is a pretty surreal moment," Stephenson said. "After I saw it went out, I was like, 'Wow, that just happened.' I was just like smiling the whole way and everything. And there's the video of me rounding the bases, it's right before I get to home plate, I just close my eyes and take a deep breath. I'm just like, 'Just enjoy it.' It still really hasn't hit me that that happened, that I did that. I hardly got any sleep that night. ... It was just crazy. Honestly, it's a dream come true."

The dream wasn't over after the homer as Stephenson came up in the eighth and ripped a single and scored again.

He since has been optioned to the alternate-site camp, but remains ready for another opportunity when the time comes. After his debut, the 23-year-old said he received more than 300 text messages. His loved ones couldn't be in the stands, but Stephenson said he has plans for a future debut 2.0.

"I've had a lot of people tell me that, 'Hey, whenever you get caught up and make a debut, I don't care where you're at. I'll fly there,'" Stephenson said. "Obviously, it won't be my first debut, but it still means something."

As for this year, the stellar outing earned him a little more clout in the video game streaming community.

"I think I had streamed like the next day after I hit the home run and I had like 80 people watching me," he said. "I usually have like two people who watch it and there were like three big name YouTube guys that were in the chat."

JT Brubaker, Pittsburgh Pirates

Had it not been for a forearm injury, JT Brubaker likely would have made his first Major League appearance well before this July.

In 2018, the right-hander had a breakthrough season between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis and was named Pittsburgh's Minor League Pitcher of the Year and an MiLB.com Organization All-Star. But with the arm trouble, Brubaker was limited to six starts last year and did not pitch after June.

That's why the 26-year-old was excited for spring, ready for a bounceback and an attempt to crack the Opening Day roster. Even when things were halted, Brubaker kept an open mind and remained in shape with a few of the club's players in Bradenton, Florida.

"Fortunately, I was able to stay down and work out at Pirate City with a select few guys," he said. "A small group just came in four days a week and was just able to stay in shape. You're throwing a bullpen, more of live BP going on down there."

In keeping his arm loose and ready to go, Brubaker was able to make the jump to the roster pool when he was called upon to join the team in early July. While initially viewed as potential rotation depth, he's also given the Pirates a boost in a relief role, something he'd only done twice in the Minors.

But as part of the Opening Day roster, Brubaker got the call three games into the season on July 26 to loosen up in the bullpen. After Mitch Keller went five innings against the Cardinals, the time came for Brubaker to toe a big league rubber for the first time. Brubaker wasn't fazed by any changes to the aesthetics and atmosphere of an empty ballpark.

"It's a little different, but once you stepped over the line and are actually playing the game and playing against another team, you kind of don't notice it," he said. "You got the fake crowd noise going, but you're really focused on what's going on."

Brubaker kept the Cardinals off the board, yielding three hits but striking out four, including the first two batters he saw -- Kolten Wong and Tommy Edman. He relied on his slider and changeup, the latter of which has improved as a weapon recently.

"I was just making sure I kept telling myself that just you don't need to do anything special," he said. "The game hasn't changed now. It's still 60 feet, 6 inches drop there and throw your stuff. Don't try to get too big to get too fancy. ... After I got the last out, I was still fired up. I mean, I felt good."

In earning his first hold, Brubaker helped ensure Derek Shelton's first win as a big league manager.

"I was filled with joy, excitement, everything and I can only imagine what he was feeling, something he's waited so long for just like me," Brubaker said of the skipper. "I kind of had a feeling of what he was feeling. And I think that was really cool to be able to know what another person was feeling."

Brandon Bailey, Houston Astros

It was already a challenging year for Brandon Bailey before the pandemic shut down baseball. The hurler had been selected by the Orioles in the Rule 5 Draft and made two outings for his new club in the Grapefruit League. But at the beginning of March, Bailey was returned to Houston and had to adjust to his role with the Astros.

He made the drive over to West Palm Beach and was mentally preparing to be back with his old organization. But as soon as he started settling in again, the spring season was over. He likened the confluence of events to "a hurricane."

"Right when you start to get your kind of bearings with this new situation and kind of wrapping your head around, OK, I was with the Orioles, now I'm back with the Astros, and this is my new reality. And the pandemic hits and we get sent back home to Colorado," Bailey said. "When I was there, I decided to just try and get down to my girlfriend, Rachel, who was in Arizona. I just felt like it was a better spot for me just to go prepare for the season in terms of weather and access to outdoor fields and mounds."

That access and work with high school pitcher Amaury Soto allowed Bailey to stay in shape and keep his arm ready to go whenever he'd back on the diamond. The time in Arizona away from the field enabled the right-hander to process his move back to the Astros and think a little bit more about his place on the club. He had thought he had a chance to crack the Orioles rotation, so going back to a more crowded Houston team led to uncertainty about a defined role.

Brandon Bailey posted a 3.30 ERA over 92 2/3 innings with Double-A Corpus Christi in 2019. Tammy Tucker/MiLB.com

As he reflected and played at fields that brought back memories of his youth, however, Bailey put things into perspective.

"It was probably one of the best things that could have [happened] because it gave me time to just process the fact that I was returned to the Astros from the Orioles," Bailey said. "I was reminiscing of what it was like wanting to play the game when I was younger. ... We get caught up as professionals -- it can be more like work and fun. It just kind of brought me full circle as to why I play the game in the first place; it's because I love it. I enjoy it because I have fun. And I always lived through thinking that one day I'd be pitching in the big leagues, that's what motivated me."

At the end of June, Bailey wasn't sure whether he would join the roster pool and have a chance of getting into one of the pitching slots, especially since he hadn't logged an inning past Double-A. But sure enough, he happily received the call to report to Summer Camp.

And on July 26, the same day Brubaker debuted in St. Louis, Bailey did likewise in Houston against Seattle. Despite allowing two hits, he worked a scoreless ninth.

"I think Ryan Pressly gave me some really great advice. When I went in there, he was like, 'Hey, they put their pants on one leg at a time.' This experience of just pitching in an empty stadium and everything like that, it just kinda feels quiet and you've got your thoughts and kind of like everything slowed down in a way. But it's also sped up because you look in the box and you see a Major League hitter in there and you're throwing to Martin Maldonado and you're watching Josh Reddick make an amazing play for you and [Carlos] Correa fielding ground balls for you."

While it's already been quite a whirlwind year for Bailey, he is looking forward to going to Colorado. Growing up 15 minutes from Coors Field, he more than welcomes that homecoming.

"I just remember days when my dad would take me to the local Little League field and he was like, 'All right, who do you want to be?'" Bailey said. "And I would imitate Dante Bichette or Andres Galarraga or Todd Helton.

"Hopefully to get that opportunity and play against my hometown team, the Colorado Rockies, would be really cool."

Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt.