Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter announced on Tuesday that the team has an innings limit in mind for both of their top pitching prospects, Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, and that they will space out their starts accordingly so that both are "available to us to pitch in September and October," according to Eduardo Encina of The Baltimore Sun. The quotes from Showalter insinuate that the team intends, once again, to be careful with both prospects, but also has their sights set on seeing both in the big leagues by the end of the season.
The Orioles were remarkably cautious with Bundy last season, letting him throw 105 2/3 innings between three minor league levels and his two-appearance stint in the majors. Their goal was, and still is, to gradually increase his innings limits year-by-year to avoid a drastic jump.
Say what you will about the Verducci Effect, but clearly the Orioles have its general philosophy in mind when limiting Bundy and Gausman's innings. How they intend to handle this remains to be seen.
In his 23 minor league starts last season, Bundy averaged just 4.5 innings per start, thanks to the Orioles pre-determined limit for each game. If the Orioles want to keep Bundy around a 30-inning increase in innings this season, and have him do it over the same amount of starts, then they can allow him to average around six innings per start this season (would total 138 innings).
Allowing him to work deeper into games would give him a better simulation of what will be asked of him in the majors, especially if they plan to use him in the pennant race they anticipate being a part of, but I would imagine they want to have him work his way up to that over the course of the year, limiting him to 4-5 inning starts early in the season then stretching him out as the season progresses.
Because he pitched in college last season, Gausman has a higher total from last season from which to expand upon. The former LSU Tiger threw 123 2/3 innings in college and 15 more in the pros, giving him 138 2/3 from which to progress. Even sticking with the restrictions Verducci set forth (which was actually just more of an analysis), Gausman could reach somewhere around 150-160 innings this season. That won't force the Orioles to hold him back much at all. But based on what Showalter is saying, it sounds like the Orioles are going to be even more cautious with Gausman than that.
The Orioles have caught some flak over their approach with their young prospects, especially Bundy, including some from me, as I thought their approach early in the season was too cautious. I would rather have seen them let him work a little deeper into games and skip a few more starts. But to each his own.
What scared me about their strategy the most, however, was the fear that they call these prospects, and Bundy in particular, up to the majors and continue to treat them with kid gloves in the big leagues, or take the gloves off completely without having built them up for it properly. The former strategy would have led to them wasting the inexpensive, pre-arbitration years of two of the game's top talents by not using them as much as they could, while the latter could have led to injury.
But it appears that, in accordance with their slow-and-steady development strategy, the Orioles are also not rushing these prospects to the majors, which will suit them well.
The Orioles have money to spend, but they're not competing financially with the Red Sox and Yankees. As we've seen, even those teams need to make wise financial decisions, and the Orioles absolutely must get some production out of their young, inexpensive players in order to remain competitive.
When the Orioles brought Bundy to the majors at the tail end of 2012, it appeared to be a precursor towards a battle for a rotation spot this season, even though the decision was made at the time simply because the major league bullpen was left depleted after an extra-inning game. It appears now, however, that the Orioles are planning to send Bundy back to Double-A to begin the season, and have him spend at least half of the season in the minors.
Bundy is already very good, and is about as polished of a 20-year-old pitcher as you will find anywhere in the game. But he's still a 20-year-old pitcher. Gausman gets similarly rave reviews for his polish and shouldn't take too long in the minors. But the Orioles appear set on not promoting either before they are ready to contribute in the majors, and that is the right strategy. By waiting until they are ready to be real contributors, instead of rookies getting their feet wet in the majors, the Orioles will allow themselves to get inexpensive starting pitching production, something that is perhaps the most valued commodity in all of baseball.
There are two variables at work here - the progression of the prospects and the success of the Orioles in the majors. If Bundy and Gausman progress well this season and the Orioles are indeed in a pennant race, both could join the club and make an immediate impact. If the pair progresses but the team struggles, either or both could get a September call-up as an audition for 2014. If either struggles, then the Orioles appear set to let them work things out in the minor leagues. Either way, they will have their innings stretched out enough to allow them to pitch into the fall at one level or another.
Both appear to be set to begin the season in Double-A, making Bowie, Md. a destination for scouts and fans alike. Neither should be there too long, as both should be in Triple-A by mid-summer, and if all goes well, they could be pitching in Camden Yards this fall in games that will be important to either the Orioles present or their future.