Dylan Bundy is on the road back from Tommy John surgery, a process that often gets taken for granted. To their credit, the Orioles have been among the more conservative teams when it comes to the usage of young pitchers, and that cautious approach extends to those recovering from injury. To that point, the Orioles announced this week that Bundy will not throw more than 75 pitches in an outing at any point for the remainder of this season, regardless of his progress of level of competition.
Arbitrary pitch count aside, it's probably a good plan to limit Bundy. Most studies show that pitching while fatigued does more damage to young arms than anything else and limiting those situations can only help keep Bundy's new ligaments in tact. But along with their pitch restriction, the Orioles have not ruled out the possibility of Bundy pitching in the majors this season, creating a disjointed plan that signals a disconnect between player development philosophies and their major league needs.
In their defense, no one is putting Bundy in the major league rotation just yet, acknowledging his need to both build up his arm strength and continue his development. But the fact that they're considering it leaves the door open for bad decisions and misuse.
Crossing the 75-pitch mark isn't going to magically break Bundy's arm, nor is it a given that by getting him to the majors he'll go over that count, but pitching minor league games out of plain sight or pressure is different than being inserted into a pennant race. Bundy, known to be a fierce competitor and tireless worker, is still young and is a prime risk to over-exert himself if given the opportunity. Using him in short stints in the majors, perhaps even long-relief opportunities, is a chance for him to over-throw which can lead to injuries. It's all an unnecessary risk for a young pitcher.
Either Bundy is ready to help this year or he isn't. Both arguments have their merit and only the Orioles can gauge his readiness, but trying to have both borders on greedy and irresponsible.
There is also the subject, one which manager Buck Showalter touched on in the article, that there's no guarantee that Bundy is ready to help the Orioles from a developmental standpoint. Because of his prospect status, general refinement as a prospect, and brief major league cameo at the end of 2012, it has been generally assumed that Bundy would ascend to the majors as soon as his health would allow. His cameo, however, was out of necessity after a string of extra-inning games and Bundy was not a guarantee to begin the season in the majors last year even if he had been healthy.
Bundy has made one start at High-A Frederick during this rehab process and will likely be there for a few more. Still, he has just three starts on his resume above that level. Bundy could stand to spend some time at either Double or Triple-A, or both, before jumping straight back to the majors. His development wasn't complete when he went down with injury, and the last thing to return from the Tommy John recovery process tends to be command. Essentially jumping him two levels without his command seems like an ill-fated plan, regardless of where the Orioles are in the standings.
Using Bundy in the majors this season isn't a poor plan in and of itself. Neither is limiting his pitch counts per outing. It's trying to do both that could cause problems. By limiting his pitches but using him in the majors, the Orioles will either set themselves up for some short starts down the stretch, taxing their bullpen in the process, or they'll use Bundy in a relief role, something to which he's not accustomed. Either way, it doesn't fit what's best for the team's present or future.
Either work Bundy back towards the majors or rule him out for this season. The decision to restrict him is likely a wise one, but trying to squeeze a few meaningful innings out of his arm in a pennant race is inconsistent and potentially greedy. If he needs the restrictions - and I'd argue that they're right to put them on him - then he shouldn't be pitching in a pennant race in September.