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Can Orioles starter Dylan Bundy still become the ace they envisioned out of 2011 draft?

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Dylan Bundy, the 25-year-old veteran of two major league seasons who enters the year as the most dependable starter in the Orioles rotation, has a message for his 19-year-old self that took the minor leagues by storm in 2012 en route to being touted as one of the game's best prospects: Don't change a thing.

What built those astronomical expectations for the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft — the unconventional and at times maniacal workouts, the long toss and the dominant professional debut season — led him to where he is today, atop the Orioles rotation with his whole career ahead of him.

The three years of arm injuries in between put his career off track, and necessitated a reciprocal message from that precocious 19-year-old to the present-day Bundy.

"Nineteen-year-old speaking to me now?" Bundy said. "Got a lot of room to improve."

That there are even two Bundys to compare at this young stage in his major league career defines it. There was an unattainable standard, then a setback and now he’s trying to find success in the context of all that.

He'll never shed the anticipation built when he was plucked in the pitching-heavy 2011 draft and anointed a future ace, backed by a fastball that reached 98 mph and a wipeout breaking ball. Then, he said, he was "a person that never went under the knife."

But the detour for Tommy John elbow reconstruction means that pitcher is never coming back — and Bundy's possible rise to those levels looks completely different than it did when he was drafted.

"That's why they drafted me where they did," Bundy said. "That was my goal as a 19-year-old — not even as a 19-year-old but a little kid. I've always wanted to be a major league starter and be that guy everyone can depend on. I want to keep working."

What was outwardly apparent when Bundy was rocketing up draft boards and then professional prospect lists, was that he had a special arm. His father drilled him and his brother, Bobby, with everything from weighted balls and heavy punching bags to tire-flipping, all to build arm strength, and the results in each were clear. One longtime scout recently told Orioles Hall of Famer Jim Palmer that the best high school pitchers he ever saw were Dwight Gooden and Bundy. He had a devastating cut fastball to go with his four-seam, a tight curveball and a changeup.

But what's become clear now is that 2012 season, when he pitched through three minor league levels and was rewarded with a spot in the major league bullpen in late September, Bundy was showing only part of what made the Orioles so enamored of him. He didn't throw his changeup in games often so as not to speed up the slow bats in the low minors. He didn't throw his cutter at all. And he still ended 2012 as the No. 2 prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America.

Only Bundy knew what might have been coming next.

"I was throwing hard that first year of pro ball, and that lasted pretty much the whole season the first year," he said. "I started to lose it, though. Not many people realize I started losing [velocity] at the end of my first year. I don't know if that was the wear and tear on that elbow or what."

Whatever the cause, the result is an indelible part of Bundy’s story. His 2013 season was lost to Tommy John surgery. He returned in June 2014 to rumblings that he wasn't the same yet. He pitched for a little more than a month in 2015 before he was shut down for the year with calcification in his shoulder. And all of a sudden, because he had signed a major league contract in 2011, he was out of minor league options without any real professional experience to speak of other than rehabilitation.

So, he began 2016 in the major league bullpen, and the new edition of Bundy emerged. His fastball averaged 94.9 mph that year, according to FanGraphs, and 92.4 mph in 2017, his first full year as a starter. But he had an effective changeup, still carried a good curveball and, after shelving it in 2016, brought the cutter back as a slider last season.

"I just kind of figured that you can't throw 99-100 as a starter every single pitch," he said. "You can for a certain amount of time, or maybe in a few years, but that's probably it at that speed. I just am learning my body, I think, and also having to refine your secondary pitches."

Bundy has a 23-15 record with a 4.16 ERA over the past two seasons, good for a major leaguer finding his footing after a long layoff but not for a former top prospect. Many around him believe it's clear that this is just the full package of what made Bundy so precocious, emerging to render the diminished velocity irrelevant — and make the ceiling of his youth still possible.

"I think that we all believed Dylan was going to be a good pitcher, regardless of what happened after the surgery, because he was so focused and so determined and he worked so hard to get healthy, he made you believe he was going to be good," Orioles director of player development Brian Graham said.

"He's a different pitcher now," executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "He's developed his off-speed stuff, and he knows how to pitch. He can locate his fastball. He can throw his changeup. He's a little bit of a different pitcher now than when he signed — a more accomplished pitcher. He has excellent instincts. He's a really good decision maker on the mound."

All that is what the Orioles hope makes Bundy, in his four remaining seasons of club control, a good investment as the fourth overall pick. Studies on the expected value by wins above replacement (WAR) for top picks vary. But most recently, FiveThirtyEight.com found the fourth overall pick to yield an average of just under 8.0 WAR under his six seasons of major league club control by the selecting team. Bundy has compiled 3.6 WAR according to FanGraphs.com and 4.5 WAR according to Baseball Reference, with four years of club control remaining — so his pace there is ahead of the mean.

Where it stands now, he's sixth in WAR, among pitchers from his draft class according to Baseball Reference. Late Miami Marlins pitcher José Fernández heads that group, and two of the pitchers ahead of him on the list — top pick Gerrit Cole and No. 3 overall pick Trevor Bauer — were selected before Bundy. But Bundy has more club control left than anyone on that list, save for fellow Oklahoman Michael Fulmer, and could end up pitching himself higher onto that list by the time each has served out his six years of club control.

If that happens, Bundy rolling along producing 2.0 WAR per year will be a realization of a realistic goal, if not the lofty ones set based on what he was at 19. His goals are always incremental, so in the short term, he wants to make 30 starts in 2018 after falling two short last season. He wants to leave games with a lead, and he wants the Orioles to contend.

And if he's to develop into a front-line major league starter and lead the Orioles rotation, as was the expectation seven summers and an arm surgery ago, it's because of everything that's emerged while his big fastball backed up.

"Maturity-wise, he's always been really, really, really advanced for his age," said Chris Tillman, who has been with the Orioles through Bundy's whole career. "He always has been. I think you really know when a guy has kind of figured out what this game is going to take and what he's going to do is when — especially as a starter — you have to have command and be able to change speeds.

"At that age, if I was throwing 98, I don't think I'd do anything but throw 98. To have the wherewithal to know that [he needs] to be able to change speeds, because at that level it might work, but when you get to this level, things are going to change. I think he knew that then and he definitely knows it now. These are big league hitters. They're going to time a [Boeing] 747 if you throw it enough. It doesn't matter. It's something that you definitely have to learn, but I feel like he learned it early on. ... He's got a pretty good idea. He's pretty well-rounded. It's not just east and west, it's north and south. It's hard and soft. It's a pretty complete package, if that makes sense."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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