A pair of former first-round draft picks — right-handers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman — don't know who will be joining them in the Orioles starting rotation Opening Day, with the four veterans who held that distinction last year off to free agency and no signings made to replace them.
Bundy and Gausman endured rough stretches in 2017 but ended the season well, and there's a belief among themselves and the coaching staff that they're ready to both anchor the rotation.
"[Chris Tillman], Wade [Miley] and Ubaldo [Jiménez], with the experience they had and the veteran so-called leadership — now it's kind of passing the torch to these two young men," pitching coach Roger McDowell said. "They made some great steps and strides last year I thought, and hopefully that path will continue and they'll become the leaders on the pitching staff that, foreseeably, that we hope that they can be. They've shown spurts of greatness. We just want to do that for more continuity over 30 starts."
For each, 2017 was a year of great expectations that were mostly met, even if a disastrous first two months for Gausman meant he had to claw all year to get his ERA down to 4.68 and Bundy needed his schedule massaged to get through a season healthy in his first full year as a big league starter.
As the team's Opening Day starter who finished 2016 on a tear, Gausman faced sky-high expectations to pitch that way consistently. Instead, he didn't permanently pull his ERA below 6.00 until mid-July, though he had a 3.61 ERA after June 11, when he found a mechanical adjustment that got him on line to the plate and helped him with his command and plane more.
Gausman said he started throwing a week early this offseason to prevent another slow start, and has been reinforcing that mechanical change this offseason by watching video of the success it brought after the All-Star break and putting down tape wherever he throws as guides to keep his body straight throughout.
"I've kind of been looking back at it trying to figure out what it was, and more than anything, I think it was just a lack of being consistent in where I was releasing the ball every time and where my foot was landing every time," Gausman said. "That's something this offseason that I've done a really good job just focusing on that and trying to control he little things. ... It's kind of one of those things that's a small thing, but I have to remind myself that over the course of a season, makes a big difference."
The hope for both him and McDowell is that it plays out over a six-month season.
"When you're looking at somebody that's progressing, there's sometimes expectations of pitchers to get to a certain point before sometimes they're ready," McDowell said. "I don't know. I don't know if Kevin is that guy. To understand that there's a process involved, to understand that over the course of two or three seasons, the things that are learned, and again, the process that you go through to pitch every fifth day on the major league rotation, not only is it physically but it's a mental challenge to go out there every fifth day and get 30, 35 starts and hopefully more."
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For Bundy, McDowell said there's tremendous value to the idea that the team got him 28 starts without having to shut him down for a month at the end of the season once he reached a set number of innings, instead using days off and padding his schedule to get him through the season.
"It says a lot from a mental standpoint, whether it's Dylan or anybody else, to get through a whole season and not have that thought coming back that I didn't pitch those last 30 days," McDowell said. "He missed his last start [with a hamstring pull], but I think it's more the fact that he got through a full year last year healthy."
It's unlikely the Orioles will have that luxury in 2018, but Bundy has spent the offseason preparing for a heavier workload and examining where he could improve. He started throwing about a week later than normal in an effort to save his arm, and pondered mixing in his curveball and changeup more often as he became too reliant on his slider as an out pitch in 2017.
Bundy's 2017 — he was 13-9 with a 4.21 ERA in 169 2/3 innings — left him in a place where there's plenty to be happy about and plenty to look forward to in terms of advancing his career. That he'll do it in such a prominent role, considering his three years missed with elbow and shoulder problems, makes it that much better.
"It means a lot that I came this far, as far as the injuries and stuff like that, and I'm finally in a position where I can compete, healthy, in the first day of spring training," Bundy said. “I'm definitely looking forward to it and excited to see how it goes."
That they're going to be so heavily relied upon, at least for Gausman, will create the good kind of pressure, he said.
"This team is only going to go as far as the rotation can take them," Gausman said. "We feel like we have everything else and we just need to be more consistent. I think we've all pitched well at times, and it's just about putting it together for a whole season."