He disappeared before ever throwing a pitch, reappeared four years later out of the blue and is back firing 99 mile per hour fastballs.
Now, thanks to a tryout and a second chance, White Sox minor league right-hander Brett Bruening has an outside shot at a major league career.
Nearly five years after the White Sox drafted him out of Grayson County College, Bruening, 26, has just begun his first full professional season. The Single-A Kannapolis pitcher -- who earned a save with a scoreless inning Wednesday night --- believes he’s in the right place to resume his career after graduating college and handling off the field issues that forced him into early retirement.
Having retained him on the restricted player list since 2010, the White Sox are eager to see what they have in the 6-foot-8, 240-pounder.
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“We didn’t know what we were going to see once we got him back,” White Sox farm director Nick Capra said. “When we first did see him, we kind of stepped back and said 'Wow.'
“He's not only opened our eyes, but some scouts along the way. Any time you light up the radar gun like that you're going to draw attention to yourself.”
As of last spring, the White Sox hadn’t heard from Bruening since he unexpectedly retired in the summer of 2010. Drafted for a third year in a row -- he was selected by St. Louis in 2008 and the New York Yankees in 2009 -- Bruening passed on attending Texas Tech to sign with the White Sox, who took him in the 42nd round. But before he ever pitched for the organization’s rookie ball team at Great Falls, Mont., Bruening opted out.
Not only did he want to resume his education, Bruening dealt with anxiety and other issues off the field. He knows he wasn’t ready to be in baseball and though he regretted the decision, Bruening retired.
“I just wasn't mentally prepared for the grind of the every day being in the minors,” Bruening said. “Deep down inside I never stopped loving the game, but also I wasn't prepared to succeed. I think I just needed to step away. I had some things outside of baseball that I wanted to improve upon and needed to go to take care of those first and foremost.”
An amateur scout at the time, Keith Staab remembers well the “dreadful call” he received from now-assistant general manager Buddy Bell when Bruening retired.
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“Before you knew it, he’s on a playing flying home,” said Staab, now a pro scout. “We couldn’t get a hold of him for four or five days.”
Bruening isn’t embarrassed by his situation. And upon graduating in May 2013 (he majored in communications at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi), he felt better prepared for baseball.
“It was kind of just the culmination of a lot of things that all boiled into one life-changing decision,” Bruening said. “I think everything happens for a reason and I came back a lot better mentally and just in a much better place to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.”
But before he got the chance, Bruening had to figure out his options. He rediscovered the drive to pitch and thought he was still in good enough shape to do it. He also knew now was the time before he found another job.
In March 2014, his agent emailed Staab to say Bruening had started throwing again and hoped to try out and find out his status (the White Sox still had him on the restricted list).
Staab agreed to a 30-pitch workout in the last week of March but didn’t know what to expect since Bruening hadn’t pitched for four years.
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“The first pitch out of his hand was 94,” Staab said. “The sliders were out of whack, but they were 84 to 86 and they had the right tilt and dip to them.”
Bruening recalls he felt good, but he was nervous. He had only been throwing for two weeks.
“When Staab was flashing numbers out when I was throwing my pen, he was holding up three and four and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm throwing 84 miles an hour,' ” Bruening said. “After the bullpen he was like, 'No, that was 93, 92.' I was freaking out.”
Though the longtime scout thought the White Sox would have a similar reaction, he first needed to be convinced Bruening was for real. Bruening had left the Sox on bad terms and Staab wanted to make sure of the pitcher’s intentions before he vouched for him to the front office.
The two talked for 30 minutes and Staab was convinced.
“It was a gut feel telling me this guy isn’t fooling around this time,” Staab said. “I saw a tear forming in his eye. I believe in second chances.”
By June, Bruening was in Kannapolis. He pitched three innings there and another three in the Arizona Rookie League in August.
Without a full offseason program, Bruening didn’t have much arm strength and the White Sox didn’t want to push him. But he did enough to earn an invite to spring training and caught the attention of rival scouts.
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“It’s a special arm,” said another AL scout. “It’s not about the slider or his stuff, it’s about his brain after what he’s been through.”
Staab and Bruening believe he’s ready for anything. Staab thinks having a college education has freed Bruening of any worries and he’s able to solely focus on baseball.
Bruening has already proven his commitment several times, first by arriving a month early for minor league camp to work on conditioning and a throwing program. Upon his arrival, Staab requested Bruening apologize to Bell and Capra and thank them for his second chance. Bruening immediately did and called Staab 30 minutes after he arrived in Glendale, Ariz. to let him know.
Now Bruening’s focus is fastball command and further development of his slider. Because he’ll turn 27 in December, he has no ambition of becoming anything other than a reliever.
He doesn’t have enough time to develop into a starter. But four years away from pitching has left Bruening with a fresh arm that continues to pump fastballs in the high 90s.
“After I got done with school I did what I said what I was going to do,” Bruening said. “In my mind I was much better and knew I could handle coming back and living the lifestyle that we live out here. There's just something inside of you when you know you're prepared to do something.”