As expected, the Baltimore Orioles’ stellar bullpen is carrying a heavy workload. With a starting rotation that struggles to pitch deep into games — one starter has reached the seventh inning in seven games — the relief corps has been called upon early and often (an abbreviated Opening Day start for Chris Tillman did not help things). Already, Orioles’ relievers have logged 29.1 innings, third highest in the league despite a rained-out game. It is an unsustainable pace that has the ‘pen on track for over 650 innings. Arms will turn to dust.
While Darren O’Day and Brad Brach have both appeared in five games, one member of the bullpen has barely been used. Dylan Bundy, out of options and effectively operating as a Rule 5 pick this season, is finally healthy after three years in and out of doctor’s offices. The former top prospect is hardly ready to handle the rigors of starting pitching, having been limited to just 65.1 innings across 19 appearances the past two seasons. He’s also not likely to be thrown to the wolves as a seventh-inning fireman like Brach or Mychal Givens.
Brach is a workhorse reliever who threw 79.1 innings last season. Unfortunately, he cannot continue appearing in over 70 percent of the Orioles’ games. His arm might be made of rubber, but 115 appearances is a big ask. Givens, another rookie with a funky delivery, threw 87.1 innings last year between Double-A and the major leagues. His sidearm delivery should help to keep his arm healthy, but Givens has already battled his mechanics over his first 4.1 appearances. Between Brach and Givens, the Orioles are preparing to run ragged a duo of relievers who combined to throw 166.2 innings last season. If Givens’ minor-league innings were counted, he and Brach would have finished first and fourth in all of baseball in relief innings. Brian Matusz will help alleviate some of the burden when he returns, but is trending in the direction of being a full-time LOOGY.
After seven games, it is clear that Bundy is on a strict leash. Buck Showalter has called for Bundy to warm up on numerous occasions, but he has only entered the game twice. All the empty warm-up tosses could be an effort to acclimate the right-hander to the rigors of life in the bullpen. It could also be that Showalter just does not fully know what to make of Bundy in a high-leverage situation. No matter what factors are behind the decision-making process concerning Dylan Bundy’s usage, the rest of the bullpen is being taxed.
Bundy made his second appearance of the season in Tuesday’s 9-5 victory over the Boston Red Sox, coming on in relief of Mike Wright who turned in what qualifies as a quality start for this rotation (5.0 IP, 4 ER –> QSFO, Quality Start for Orioles). Over 2.1 innings, Bundy mostly kept the Red Sox in check, running his fastball up to 95 mph and showing nice touch on his curveball. He threw 43 pitches, 32 for strikes, and worked efficiently. With a big lead, Bundy mostly pitched to contact.
The 50-pitch mark seems to be close to Bundy’s limit at this point in the season, and the long-relief role suits him well. His stuff plays better over a few innings than in short burst like a seventh-inning guy. At no point during this season should the Orioles consider asking Bundy to pitch two nights in a row or in three games out of five. Leave that to Brach, Givens, O’Day, and Zach Britton, established bullpen veterans.
Bundy’s performance in the team’s seventh straight victory, however, should help further establish his role as the designated long reliever. With an offense capable of scoring in bunches, the Orioles do not necessarily need more than five innings out of their starting pitcher every night. On the other side of the coin, they cannot continuously burn through their seventh inning guys in the sixth inning. Bundy needs to be on a set schedule, and using him as a designated relief option twice a week could allow the starter to leave it all out there for an abbreviated start. Bundy’s presence in the bullpen can certainly complicate things for the manager this season, and eventually the kid gloves will be taken off as he proves his health. As the weather warms, Bundy needs to be counted on for at least six innings a week. There is an undeniable need for caution with the top prospect, but not at the expense of the rest of the bullpen.