Back on March 7, Arizona Diamondbacks scout T.R. Lewis travelled to Marietta to take in a Region 7-AAAAA baseball game. Forsyth Central was playing that day, but Lewis didn’t make the trip to see anyone on the Bulldogs’ roster.
No, he was there to check out one of Sprayberry’s kids. But scouts never sit in the stands and focus on just one guy. They try to see as much as possible.
Early on Lewis saw Central’s catcher fire a sharp throw down to second base during warm-ups. High velocity, straight line, right into the glove. Moments later, that backstop displayed how well he can position himself behind the plate. So Lewis made a mental note.
Talent evaluators make thousands upon thousands of mental notes over the course of a season, and rarely do they add up into anything meaningful. When they do, however, big decisions tend to follow. It’s those few instances that can often make or break one’s scouting career.
Several innings passed before one of Central’s batters lined a base hit into the outfield. It wasn’t earth shattering by any means; just a single. But the hitter’s mechanics stood out. Smooth follow-through, quick hands.
“That’s a nice swing,” Lewis thought to himself, and he made another note.
Eventually, Lewis pieced it all together: it was the same Bulldog who impressed him over and over. So he went over to Central’s dugout for more information.
“Who is No. 21?” he asked someone on the bench.
“What year is he?”
“Is he committed to a college?”
Lewis reported back to headquarters, and different members of the organization — himself included — watched Branigan at least four more times. They wanted to make sure his performance against Sprayberry wasn’t an aberration.
“Defensively I thought Michael was very advanced,” Lewis said. “Catcher is such a premium position, maybe the hardest position to evaluate. He can really catch and throw. You add in that he’s a strong athlete, and those three things bode well together.
“Credit to Michael, he never pushed us off him. He never did things to make us think he isn’t a pro prospect.”
On Central’s senior night, Lewis finally introduced himself to the 5-foot-10 prospect. It was at that point when Branigan realized the gravity of the situation.
On May 18, he worked out in front of Lewis, as well as Arizona’s scouting director, general manager and a few other regional scouts. He looked good.
On Sunday, Branigan’s phone rang. He had a pretty good idea who was on the other end.
“If you’re not watching, turn on the draft,” Lewis told him. “You may want to hear your name called.”
Branigan hung up, turned on MLB Network and began recording video of the screen from his phone. His ID number and name were announced in the 22nd round (660th overall), and his dad started crying. His mom quickly pulled up Google Maps to see how far of a drive it is from Georgia to Arizona (roughly 1,883 miles and 25 hours in the car).
As for Michael himself? He’s just thankful for the opportunity.
“I’m going for it,” he said. “I’m going to achieve the goal of playing Major League baseball.”
Branigan will fly out to Arizona on Thursday, where he’s expected to sign his contract with the Diamondbacks and make the decision official.
Once the ink dries, he’ll head to Scottsdale and report to the D-backs’ rookie ball affiliate, at which point his new career will begin. If all goes well, he’ll suit up on Friday for his professional debut.
Quite a leap from Class AAAAA.
“It’s a very quick jump,” Branigan said. “The adjustment period is going to be there, and I’m going to have to work hard. Knowing myself, I’m going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing and put in the work I have to put in to be successful.”
Though Branigan is passing up a great opportunity to compete at the collegiate level, he and his family believe going pro is the right decision. His parents, along with his coaches at Central, have offered their full support.
If a baseball career doesn’t pan out, one can return to school and earn a degree. It doesn’t work the other way around. Lewis, who was also drafted straight out of high school and played more than a decade in the pros, understands this as well as anyone.
After roughly a month of communication between the two sides, Branigan didn’t have a problem forgoing his NCAA scholarship.
“I know it’s the right call,” he said, “and my mom and dad are 100 percent behind me.”
Without question, Branigan understands how fortunate he is to be in this spot. Arizona was the only MLB organization to contact him, and that attention came by pure chance. How often does a teenage boy catch the eye of a Major League scout with a warm-up throw?
“Baseball is a funny game,” Lewis said. “And it certainly worked in Michael’s favor.”
Slowly, it’s all sinking in for Branigan. Making it to the big leagues has been one of his goals for a long time, but now, suddenly, that dream seems tangible.
“It definitely feels more realistic [than it did before the draft],” he said. “Now I’m in. Instead of going to college and hopefully getting looks after that, I’ve gotten my looks and I’m going into the school of baseball.
“[Playing in the MLB] is right out of my reach, and I’m going to make sure I get there.”