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December 1, 2015

Pitching Backward

The Bundy Conundrum

by Jeff Long

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It’s hard to imagine the level at which Dylan Bundy dominated the high school competition in Oklahoma. As a sophomore he was named Gatorade State Player of the Year in Oklahoma—an award he would win in his junior and senior seasons as well. As a junior he threw in the 17u WWBA National Championship, hitting 96 mph. That junior year was his first at Owasso High School, a team that would play in back-to-back state championship games thanks to Bundy’s work on the mound and in the field.

But his senior campaign was the pièce de résistance. He threw 78 innings, during which he struck out 158 and walked four. His earned run average was 0.25. He reportedly allowed two or more hits in only four of his 11 starts. His senior season was good enough to make him the first baseball player to win Gatorade Athlete of the Year. He was also named the Baseball America High School Player of the Year, USA Today National Player of the Year, 2011 Louisville Slugger Player of the Year, The National High School Coaches Association Player of the Year, and the National High School Baseball Coaches Association Player of the Year.

The only high school aged player with as much hype at the time was Bryce Harper, who was crushing junior college pitchers during this time.[1] Bundy was unquestionably the big man on Owasso’s campus, but something was festering beneath the seemingly pristine surface.

After his senior year Bundy entered the 2011 MLB draft, having to wait for only three picks—all of which were of polished college pitchers—to be selected. He’d join his brother Bobby in Baltimore, though Dylan would do so on a major-league deal, meaning the O’s had to immediately add him to the 40-man roster. At the time this was inconsequential. Bundy was advanced for a high school arm in terms of pitchability and arsenal. He had multiple near-MLB ready pitches, including a devastating cutter that sat 6-8 mph slower than his mid-90s fastball, and that reportedly gave hitters fits throughout high school.

Since being drafted by the Orioles Bundy has been a mainstay of top prospect lists. His rankings have been as follows:

· 2012 BP Top 101 – 6th

· 2013 BP Top 101[2] – 4th

· 2014 BP Top 101 – 15th

· 2014 Midseason Update – 8th

· 2015 BP Top 101 – 8th

· 2015 Midseason Update[3] – Omitted

Bundy has basically been, for most of his professional career, one of the most lauded prospects in all of baseball. He maintained that sterling reputation despite multiple arm surgeries because pitchers with 96 mph fastballs and four average or better pitches are always among the most lauded prospects in all of baseball. Still, his future is very much in doubt.

When Bundy was drafted by the Orioles he went through Rick Peterson’s biomechanical analysis, along with the rest of the O’s pitching staff. The result was the recommendation to tweak some of Bundy’s mechanics. Here’s what Bundy said to David Laurila recently about the topic:

“We were trying to get my arm in a higher position. They say your arm needs to be at a certain angle when your foot makes contact, and mine was at a lower angle. We tried to change that a little bit. I got my hands moving… really, I just got away from the things I did in high school. I changed throughout the course of my first full minor league season, and I don’t think I should have.

“That’s the only thing I really regretted — changing those minor things my first year in pro ball. I should have stuck to what I did best. I should have just picked up a ball and thrown it. I’m a big believer in that; pick up a ball and throw it. If that’s how you throw, don’t change it.”

“Workout-wise, I think I was pretty solid. I don’t think I’d have changed any of that. I did do some things differently mechanically. That may have led to my surgery. I don’t really know.”

There were deceleration concerns pointed out by Boddy back in 2012, and Kevin Goldstein had the following to say about Bundy:

Dylan Bundy, is the flavor of the month … the only nitpick I’ve ever gotten is that he opens up a little bit. And its total nitpicking, but you might not be crazy about what that does to shoulders and elbows.

The simple truth is that Bundy had decent, but not perfect mechanics. What he had done, however, was work with his father and brother, another O’s prospect, to create a workout plan that was designed to build musculature that supported his mechanics. Bundy famously worked out intensely even in high school, with the goal of helping his body support the significant workload it was put under during his high school tenure.

His mechanics were tweaked by the Orioles and injuries followed. Most blame the workload he endured throughout high school. Others thought his cut fastball, arguably his best pitch, was to blame. Some, myself included, worried that the Orioles’ tinkering resulted in Bundy’s muscles no longer supporting his ligaments properly during his delivery.

Regardless of the cause, Bundy has struggled to stay healthy. He underwent Tommy John surgery—unfortunately a common experience for many pro and amateur pitchers these days. Then he had a calcium buildup issue costing him more time. The Orioles would send him to the Arizona Fall League, only to be scratched after his first outing because of general soreness in his arm. After two short starts in Arizona, Bundy was shut down for good. The Orioles claim the soreness isn’t a serious issue, but with Bundy’s history of arm issues everything becomes magnified.

Therein lies the rub for Baltimore. Bundy, a product of an old draft system, has been on the Orioles’ 40-man roster since signing out of the draft. Each season since then they’ve sent him to the minors, burning an option each time. Come Opening Day, Bundy will be out of options. He needs to be on the Orioles’ roster or on waivers.[4] The problem is that Bundy has thrown just 67 innings since the end of the 2012 season, meaning that his arm is in no shape to slot into the back end of the Orioles’ rotation.

The Orioles fancy themselves contenders again in 2016. So now they must figure out how to balance that with their need to keep Bundy on the major-league roster. It’s a fascinating conundrum. Bundy, a pitcher who would surely be scooped up by any number of teams if he were put on on waivers, must stay on the 25-man roster this season, but he also needs innings to get his arm in shape to contribute. Barring injuries and poor performance, the club would love him to slot into the rotation sooner rather than later, but the chances of that working in 2016 are slim to none.

Hiding Bundy isn’t like hiding Jason Garcia, a raw talent the O’s acquired via trade in the Rule 5 draft. With Garcia, the Orioles had the option of sending him to the minors after rostering him for all of 2015. That meant that one season of discomfort could result in many years of solid production down the road.

But Bundy can’t be sent back down without clearing waivers. Not this year, not next year, not ever. So the team needs to "hide" him until his arm is healthy, but they also need to build his innings so that they don’t run into the same problem in 2017.

Of course, trading Bundy is another viable avenue for the organization. Frankly, he might do well with a change of scenery, especially if he went to an organization with a more flexible training program that embraced his long toss routines and boxing-inspired workouts. That route, however, requires the club to sell low on what was once one of the most valuable prospect assets in all of baseball.

Some research suggests that a top 10 pitching prospect holds a value of roughly $40M to his team, which is roughly where Bundy slotted in prior to his ongoing injury woes this past summer. Bundy is damaged goods, but the value he previously held can’t be ignored. As such, the Orioles are caught between developing Bundy the right way—stretching him out to prepare him to be healthy and manage a starting pitcher’s workload—and the reality of needing to have him on the major-league roster.

The most likely scenario is that Bundy makes the club out of spring training in the bullpen, pitching in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings of games as a sort of long man. The club will likely want him to make multiple inning outings where possible, while working on extending himself in side sessions. Luckily, the O’s have experience in just this scenario, having broken in Kevin Gausman in a similarly unorthodox manner. Whether or not the handling of Gausman helped or hindered his development is something we’ll likely never have the answer to, but at least this won’t be the Orioles’ first time trying to develop a starter in the big-league bullpen.

It’s possible that some enterprising team will call Dan Duquette with a win-now oriented offer that’s too good to pass up, thus removing this difficult situation from Duquette and Buck Showalter’s plate. If that offer doesn’t come though, it’ll largely be up to Showalter to navigate the sticky situation, and protect Bundy as a potentially valuable asset. No matter how things got to this point, it’s now on Showalter to bring Bundy along. This is exactly the kind of thing that Showalter is lauded for, and so it’s worth holding out some hope that things will go seamlessly. Unfortunately, nothing in Bundy’s career has gone seamlessly so far.

[1] Harper is a month older than Bundy, but of course was able to enter the 2010 MLB draft through expert navigation of the draft rules with the help of his then-advisor Scott Boras. From the linked article, “Ron Harper said his son, who turns 17 on Oct. 16, will be draft eligible ‘in 2010 or 2011. ... There are a lot of rules that people don't know about.’”

[2] Bundy would undergo Tommy John surgery during the 2013 season.

[3] Bundy had a calcium buildup on his shoulder that required surgery and yet another shutdown.

[4] Technically Bundy could start the season on the Major League DL. The effect is the same, only the timeline is altered.

Jeff Long is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

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