SARASOTA, Fla. — Dylan Bundy was months into rehabilitating his surgically repaired right elbow, and the tedium of throwing exercises was beginning to test the 21-year-old's mettle.
He wanted to feel that he was advancing. He wanted to get the competitive juices flowing. Really, the Orioles phenom wanted to be a pitcher again, not just some guy tossing a baseball 90 or 180 feet on a back field in Florida.
And then Brady Anderson made a simple gesture — partly motivational, partly for his own survival.
Anderson, the longtime Orioles outfielder and current club vice president, walked onto the field one day earlier this year to play catch with Bundy, wearing a catcher's mask and holding a mitt.
Anderson told Bundy to start throwing as the front-office executive crouched into a catcher's squat. Bundy's face lit up.
“It's great. I don't care if you are left-handed, right-handed or don't catch at all, having a catcher is awesome,” Bundy said. “He knew I'd like that. And I did. It was fun.”
Anderson says it was simply a matter of good sense.
“I was just going to get down and give him a target. And if you are going to catch a guy throwing 100 [mph], you might want to put a mask on,” Anderson quipped. “There wasn't too much thought behind it. I thought it would feel better on my face if I had a mask on.”
The rocket-armed Bundy isn't throwing 100 mph yet. He's not allowed to throw anywhere near 100 percent. It's more like 70 percent to 80 percent while Bundy continues to rehabilitate from Tommy John surgery last June to repair a slight tear in his right elbow ligament.
He has been in major league camp since it opened in mid-February but, for procedural purposes, was optioned to Double-A Bowie on Friday and will be placed on the minor league disabled list.
He'll primarily be working with minor league medical coordinator Dave Walker, but Bundy probably will be back at Ed Smith Stadium to do more rehab with the big league staff, too.
The roster move “just changes where I am going to be. I'm going to be working with [Walker] down there, and that's who I've been working with the first six months of my rehab,” Bundy said. “We have a good relationship — it will be fine.”
Bundy's arduous rehabilitation has gone well — the deliberate pace, though, is something he has had to get accustomed to.
“It's been very hard. You take a week or two at each progression, and you end up throwing for a day or two, and I want to move up to the next progression,” said Bundy, the club's top draft pick in 2011 and one of the most heralded pitching prospects in franchise history. “But they keep telling me to hold back. I thought the hardest part of my surgery would be the throwing. It is not. It's the waiting.”
He'll stay in Sarasota and continue building arm strength until he can go on a rehab assignment and pitch in minor league games.
Pitchers typically return from the now-common surgery in about a year, which would put him back in a competitive environment in June. He has a date in mind for when he would like to return.
“Yeah, in my head I do, but I'm not going to tell you that,” Bundy said. “They say a full year is a respectable time period. So, hopefully some time around then.”
For someone whose competitiveness and work ethic were almost legendary before he was drafted fourth overall out of Owasso High (Okla.), keeping Bundy focused on the big picture and not rushing ahead initially was considered the steepest hurdle in his rehabilitation.
“Physically, he seems to be coming along. And mentally, he's come along real good. And that's the tough part,” Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace said. “It's a long, drawn-out rehab process, and he's been a model student so far.”
Anderson said Bundy's rehab program isn't easy, even for those who aren't recovering from surgery.
“He throws on a line up to 180 feet now, and he's got something on it,” Anderson said. “I am doing it with him, and sometimes I need somebody to help me do it. It's a lot [of] throwing.”
Currently at the long-toss stage, Bundy is scheduled to throw off a flat mound for the first time Wednesday. He views that as a baby step, going from grass to dirt and a rubber, although it will mean he'll throw to a right-handed catcher in full gear. The more telling jump is after that, he said, when he'll be able to throw from an elevated half-mound.
“The big step, the big progression, is the half-mound, which is in a couple weeks,” Bundy said.
One thing driving Bundy throughout his rehab is the success so many other pitchers have had after Tommy John surgery. The procedure has become so routine that some come back stronger and with more velocity than they had before. Bundy, who threw in the high 90s when healthy, said he'd just like to pick up where he left off in 2012, when he compiled a 2.08 ERA in three minor league stops before throwing 12/3 scoreless innings in September for the Orioles.
“Some people say you throw harder, but that really doesn't matter as long as I can get back to the level I was at before,” he said.
The sense is that he will. Baseball America ranked Bundy as the organization's top prospect again in 2014 even though he lost all of 2013.
“It's nice that they still consider me a top prospect after not pitching for a whole year,” he said. “But then again, those are just numbers. It's all about how you perform.”
Anderson said people shouldn't forget just how dominant Bundy was as a professional. At age 19, he struck out 119 batters while allowing just 29 walks and 68 hits in 1051/3 innings.
“He is already accomplished. People make it seem like he's not an accomplished pitcher, just pure skills, because of his age,” Anderson said. “I don't think that's the case. He is a bright guy. He knows how to pitch. … He's not a guy who just throws straight, 98mph. That's not who he is.”
Anderson has known Bundy since he was drafted. They've gotten particularly close within the past year, and Anderson calls the right-hander “one of my favorite athletes.”
“He's just quiet and works hard,” Anderson said. “He loves to train. He is talented and yet he maximizes his talent. He thinks about the game. He is low-key, interesting, funny. He is a good guy.”
Known for his unorthodox and intense workouts as an amateur — flipping tires, punching heavy bags, continual long-tossing — Bundy said he still loves training, but he does things a little differently now.
Instead of long-distance runs, he's been concentrating more on sprints. He still works out intensely on his lower core but says he no longer does “any heavy strenuous stuff with my upper body. Just throwing.” And his days of flipping tires are over — for now, anyway. He says he's never felt stronger or in better condition.
“I think the whole experience, in the long haul, has probably been good for him,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It's made him kind of step back and, once again, realize that more is not always better. You don't have to throw 20 medicine balls up against the wall. You've got to train smart, but I don't care how great a shape somebody's in, the human body needs time to recover.”
The main lesson Bundy said he has learned in the past year is that if things aren't feeling right, he needs to let people know immediately. Last spring, he tried to pitch through forearm and elbow discomfort without telling anyone. That, he says, was a mistake.
“I just held it back for two or three weeks and I should have told somebody sooner to get it taken care of,” he said.
He's now all about looking forward. He doesn't care at which level he starts the season. He'd love to pitch for the Orioles in 2014, something Anderson believes is a legitimate possibility, but Bundy is content with just getting back on a mound in a game this year.
And throwing to a crouching catcher for real.