Hunter Harvey, the Orioles’ top pitching prospect, arrived at Ed Smith Stadium on Wednesday expecting to travel to Tampa to face the New York Yankees in a showcase start that could have resulted in him earning a spot on the Opening Day roster.
Instead, because the Orioles signed right-hander Alex Cobb to a four-year deal to slot into their rotation as a fifth proven major league starter, and they have more pressing evaluation needs for the likes of Miguel Castro and Rule 5 draft pick Nestor Cortes Jr., Harvey was optioned to Double-A Bowie instead of making that start.
Harvey was saying his goodbyes before the Orioles stretched, and the consensus from many of the major leaguers remaining was that they’d be seeing him soon. The message in his meeting from manager Buck Showalter was a positive one, he said.
“It's nothing bad,” Harvey said Wednesday after getting the news. “It was positive. I wouldn't say it was bad. We got Cobb coming in, so it makes sense. I know my role, and what I need to do.”
His charge to this point in camp was to go out and pitch well, which he had, to the tune of a 3.86 ERA in three starts. After pitching in a minor league game last week, Harvey was scheduled to face a first-choice Yankees lineup in what was seen as a test on a lot of levels. That he was making it at all strongly suggested he was in the mix for the fifth starter job along with Mike Wright Jr., Castro and Cortes. In terms of raw talent, Harvey might have been leading at this juncture in camp.
Cobb’s signing seemed to have as many indirect impacts on him as direct ones. Sure, he’s another starter, but his presence means the Orioles might have to make a tougher decision on a pitcher further down the roster, making Harvey’s inclusion on the Opening Day roster more problematic.
“I can't really say much about that,” Harvey said. “It's their choice. I thought I'd come in with a good case, and what happens, happens.”
Showalter said in Tampa before Wednesday night’s game against the Yankees that Harvey was on the verge of forcing the Orioles to make a difficult decision.
“I did see enough to have a feeling for when he could,” Showalter said. “If we hadn’t found Cobb, we might have seen real quick. There’s a lot of people who were probably thinking what I was thinking and kind of glad in a way on a lot of fronts. I really didn’t want to have to make that decision. We all knew in our hearts that it was best for him to pitch above the Single-A level.”
It's only from the outside that Harvey's spring exceeded expectations. Despite having thrown just 41 1/3 innings over the past three seasons because of injuries, the 2013 first-round draft pick is right on the path the team prepared him for entering major league camp, and he's right where he wants to be.
"I wouldn't say more than I thought — they told me coming into spring that I'm going to get the chance to pitch, and gladly, it's been against some good teams, with good lineups," Harvey said Tuesday.
He was excited to carry on that opportunity in such a high-profile assignment, but will instead switch his focus to preparing for the minor league season.
Showalter has said this spring that Harvey remained in camp because the Orioles believe he's benefiting from it. But his comments both now and in January at minicamp indicate the team will be going by feel in deciding how to bring him back this season after extended injury-related absences dating to July 2014.
Showalter said there's no data to support incremental innings increases post-Tommy John elbow reconstruction, and said there are teams using the Orioles' plan from 2016 to bring Dylan Bundy back from injury after a similar layoff. Bundy had to be in the majors that year because he was out of minor league options, and pitched in relief before the All-Star break and then joined the rotation.
"It's what your eyes tell you," Showalter said. "It's what the player tells you. It's what the other team tells you. Physically, in most cases they're stronger than they were before — long before the surgery. That part of it, the physical part of it, isn't the issue. And no one has any data to back up how many innings and increment jumps. The doctors won't tell you 28 2/3 innings. They just wont do it. There's nothing to back it up. The biggest thing with Hunter is the experience level of where he's pitched. He really hasn't pitched out of A-ball."
With his assignment to Bowie, Harvey will skip High-A Frederick entirely and be just a short drive down the road from an Orioles team that clearly views him as a short-term asset in addition to their top long-term pitching prospect.
Harvey has maintained all offseason that he wants to make the big leagues as soon as possible, but being able to pitch as part of a regular rotation and be healthy isn’t a shabby consolation prize.
“Meeting new guys, being back on the field again — I just missed playing,” Harvey said. “Being able to play again is awesome.”
To make room for Cobb on the organization’s 40-man roster, the Orioles designated José Mesa for assignment Wednesday morning.
Mesa, one of three pitchers the Orioles selected in the Rule 5 draft, had a 5.87 ERA in 7 2/3 exhibition innings.
“We knew that he was probably going back at some point it looked like,” Showalter said. “There’s a chance we’ll need more roster spots. I can see why he was taken and I’d love to have him in the system, but the major league club is not here to develop minor league prospects. He’s a good young prospect and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pitching in the big leagues.”
As a Rule 5 pick, Mesa must be offered back to the Yankees, the team he was drafted from, if he clears waivers.
Mesa was initially in the mix for a starting role — he allowed just one earned run in 25 1/3 innings at Double-A Trenton in 2017 — but he didn’t pitch more than two innings in any of his five spring starts. He allowed runs in three of his five outings, including three runs over two-thirds of an inning in his Grapefruit League debut against the Boston Red Sox on Feb. 25.
Orioles win award for charitable contributions
The Baseball Assistance Team, a charity that assists current and former baseball players and their families to the tune of $38 million in awards to over 3,900 members of the baseball community, awarded the Orioles this year’s 2018 Bobby Murcer Award.
Each year, B.A.T. goes on a spring training fundraising tour and the Murcer Award is given to the team in each league whose players and staff pledge to contribute the most during that trip.
Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, a longtime board member, said it was an honor for the team. He frequently promotes the group’s causes on social media.
"Serving on B.A.T.’s board over the past seven years, with guys who care so much about our baseball family, has been one of my most humbling experiences,”Jones said in a statement. "As a board member, I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for the record number of donations received, which will help our baseball family moving forward. I want to also thank all of my teammates, who gave generously to have us be recognized with the Bobby Murcer Award for the American League.
“It’s an amazing recognition because it shows you that current players care about the future and the past. They understand what people have been through to pave the way. Moving forward, I hope we can continue to help B.A.T. grow because it is an organization that really cares about the past, current, and future players and staff of our game.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this article.