Even for a front office that has largely followed through on its pledge one year ago to be open and transparent on what they planned to do to make the Orioles into a viable and sustainable competitor, the words were striking.
On his conference call Monday to address the team’s moves at the contract tender deadline for arbitration-eligible players, which featured the team avoiding arbitration with Richard Bleier and trading infielder Jonathan Villar to the Miami Marlins, executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias was asked about the status of right-hander Dylan Bundy.
A week ago, MLB.com reported there was momentum toward a trade of Bundy, who has two years of club control left and is owed a projected $5.7 million in arbitration this year. And while nothing came to fruition before Thanksgiving, Elias certainly didn’t declare the Orioles’ longest-tenured starter off limits.
“Dylan’s a really good starting pitcher, had a good year for us, took a step forward for us, and has a lot of potential,” Elias said. “He’s got four pitches, he strikes out a lot of hitters, he’s as good a competitor as there is out there.
“There are a lot of teams looking for pitching right now, so he’s a popular guy in that respect. As I’ve said all along, we have conversations about any of our players on the major-league roster. That’s just where we’re at right now as an organization, and his is a name that I hear often. But, until a trade is done, or if it ever comes, he’s a part of our team, part of our rotation, and we look forward to seeing him in Sarasota.”
Contrast that to what Elias has said in the past about someone like Trey Mancini, another homegrown talent who has years of club control left and is someone Elias has frequently said the team could build around, and the Bundy answer sounds more like an advertisement.
To be fair, Elias likely doesn’t have to drum up much of a market for someone like Bundy, even if the shine of a player who was once the top prospect in all of baseball has largely worn off. Bundy cut down on the home runs he allowed in 2019 en route to a bit of a bounce-back year, finishing with a 4.79 ERA and slightly better peripherals that essentially made him a league-average pitcher.
While pitcher wins above replacement (WAR) is far from the best measure, he was worth 2.5 WAR according to FanGraphs in 2019, and only eight free-agent starting pitchers were better. Two years of Bundy for, at most, $14 million or $15 million, for his age-27 and age-28 seasons before he hits free agency is a lower-risk and lower-reward proposition than guaranteeing at least that much on a per-year basis to a pitcher in his 30s, which is what signing any of those eight pitchers would be doing.
There’s also a legitimate question about which Bundy an acquiring team would be getting. His durability isn’t a question. He’s made at least 28 starts in each of the last three seasons, and some of his so-so results would probably be better if he didn’t pitch through the things he has to make that the case.
This year, the Orioles made breakthroughs in getting Bundy to use his homer-prone fastball less and work as a four-pitch pitcher. He said at the end of the season that he looked to Zack Grienke, another former hard-thrower who has learned to use all of his pitches in any count, as an example of how to go forward with his present-day arsenal. Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka would be another example he could look to.
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Bundy’s slider is still a legitimate strikeout pitch, and he spent all of 2019 working his curveball and changeup into being reliable pitches again.
When he first broke into the majors full-time and had arguably his best season in 2016, Bundy didn’t use his slider; his fastball-curveball-changeup mix was more than enough. It stands to reason that another year of commitment to pitching that way could lead to further improvement, meaning Elias’ proclamation that he has a lot of potential could end up being the case.
Like the Villar trade, it’s not like the Orioles are brimming with options to replace Bundy. Another possible challenge to trading Bundy, who could pitch for the Orioles for two more years before free agency, would be that Elias would have to ask for more than lottery tickets in their first professional season like he did for Andrew Cashner with the two Venezuelan teenagers acquired from the Boston Red Sox or the first-year professional pitcher he got from the Marlins for Villar.
Trading Bundy would require a more substantial haul. At least one player who will slide into the team’s top-30 prospects would be the starting point. It’s a different trade than the Orioles have executed to this point under Elias, but given the overwhelming data set growing to show this team is more than willing to cut payroll and present-day talent in the name of building up their farm system for a possible contender down the line, Bundy could be the next player set to leave this rebuild behind.