Dylan Bundy finds himself in one of the most unique situations in baseball entering the 2016 season. Despite retaining his rookie status, Bundy cannot be optioned to the minor leagues. Because he signed a full major-league contract after being drafted in 2011, Bundy has exhausted his four option years. Despite the fact that injuries have limited the former top pick to just 65.1 innings over the past three years, the Baltimore Orioles have no choice but to stick him in their bullpen and hope for the best.
Early returns on Bundy so far in spring training have been positive, and he is no longer showing the effects of the shoulder and elbow injuries that kept him on the shelf for most of the 2014 and 2015 seasons. As he has reeled off four straight appearances without allowing an earned run, Bundy is once again flashing the 95-mph fastball with life and power curveball that made him one of the most exciting pitching prospects in the game.
Bundy’s raw talent has not abandoned him, but he is clearly forced to play catch-up due to his status as a de facto Rule 5 pick. The Orioles still envision Bundy as a starter in their long-term plans, but he has not pitched deep into games or faced lineups multiple times in over three years. His innings and appearances will have to be closely monitored. Bundy will not be able to serve as a typical middle reliever (although he certainly has the stuff to be a nasty seventh-inning weapon). Perhaps later in the season Bundy will be able to pitch on back-to-back days or three days out of five, but not in April. Getting him through two or three months fully healthy has to remain the ultimate focus for the Orioles.
Though Bundy will be on a short leash early in the year, that does not mean the Orioles cannot try and get value out of his presence in their bullpen. The 23-year-old will likely fill the role of long-man, but the Orioles should get creative with the way he is deployed. Typically, the long-man pitches only when the starting pitcher gets knocked around and is pulled early in the game. These are your innings eaters — pitchers not to be counted on to do much more than get outs so that the best relievers can save their arms for a more winnable battle. Bundy is better than that.
If the Orioles want to harness Bundy’s impact potential while still nursing his innings, he should be used in tandem with the fifth starter in the rotation, as Lord knows whoever claims that job will need all the help they can get. Early in the year, Bundy needs to become accustomed to pitching every fifth day while also pitching more than one inning. Being used as such will allow Bundy to approach 60 innings while also keeping a normal starter’s routine between appearances. Consistency will go a long way towards keeping the would-be ace of the Orioles in good, working order with an eye on starting in 2017.
The Orioles will be lucky to get better than league-average starting pitching from the fifth slot of their rotation (the same could be said about the other four slots), but a pitcher like Tyler Wilson — who should be viewed as the favorite to win the final spot in the rotation — would benefit greatly if the pressure to pitch deep into games is removed. Wilson is the type of pitcher who should be able to make it through most lineups twice relatively unscathed. Asking him to face a lineup a third time is pushing it. With Bundy riding shotgun, the Orioles should be able to get seven quality innings out of the pair on most occasions, also serving to save the rest of the bullpen that figures to be called upon early and often.
There is no easy way to handle a pitcher in Dylan Bundy’s position. The Orioles are going to have to monitor his health closely while also finding a way to get the most out of his talented arm. Buck Showalter cannot afford to see Bundy reduced to a mop-up duty pitcher this season, nor can Bundy’s presence become a hindrance on the remaining six pitchers in the bullpen. Using him in tandem with one of the pitchers in the starting rotation would allow a normal routine to be established while also exposing Bundy to meaningful innings. Dylan Bundy is hardly in an ideal launching position for MLB stardom this year, but it is still far too soon to write him off for good. With the right approach, 2016 may end up proving extremely valuable for the future of this once rapidly-ascending star.