SARASOTA, FLA. — An offseason away from it all hasn't done much to change Orioles manager Buck Showalter's thinking on right-hander Hunter Harvey, who — were it not for three years of injuries — could reasonably be in his rotation by now.
Looking Monday at a roster board bereft of starting pitching and knowing the talent the team's 2013 first-round draft pick both had before years of elbow trouble and still carried in his rehabilitation outings last summer, Showalter said it would be the Orioles, and not Harvey, who are the ones who will need to be cautious this year.
Even with Harvey having pitched just 31 1/3 innings over the past three seasons, which were sunk by a fractured leg, sports hernia surgery and Tommy John elbow reconstruction, there's little doubt among the Orioles brass that he could be among their best pitchers in major league camp this year and force a decision that's equal parts uncomfortable and enticing, at least for the 2018 club.
"Let's put it this way — if he didn't have options, he may not go down," Showalter said Monday at the club's annual pitching minicamp. "I think he'd be capable of handling that. But I think in a perfect world, I don't know if we're going to have that luxury of carrying someone like that in the bullpen. It's not in his best interest to be in the bullpen if you can help it. But we'll see how it progresses. I'm not coming in with any binders on him. He's a pitcher. He's a normal, regular pitcher in the spring, and we're going to treat him as such. He's over it.
"I know Hunter was probably as happy a guy to just be here as a normal pitcher. He's ready to go. If anything, we're going to have to caution ourselves with him."
That much, at least, was true Monday. Harvey, fresh off his November addition to the 40-man roster and a recent trip to the MLB Rookie Career Development Program, came to Sarasota from an offseason he was relieved to call a healthy one. Instead of having to follow a strict rehab schedule, he hunted. He's been throwing for about a month, and for the first time in years can say he does so without pain. And that's big enough for him to not worry about the big picture within the organization.
"I haven't really gotten that far yet, I don't think," Harvey said. "Just not being able to pitch the last couple years, it hasn't been on my mind much. My mindset is let's get healthy, let's start feeling good. I'll take the ball every five days and we'll go from there. I just haven't gotten that far ahead.
"Wherever I'm at, I just want to be able to take the ball every five, six days, be healthy, pitch a full season and just have a normal year.”
For Showalter and the entire Orioles organization, the main goal is the same.
"Healthy," Showalter said. "I don't have much doubt he'll be productive if he's healthy. I think he's got the worst behind him."
A similar situation, albeit with one extenuating circumstance, played out two minicamps ago with another Orioles first-round pick who ended up spending his season in Sarasota rehabbing instead of climbing through the minors: Dylan Bundy. In 2016, Bundy was out of minor league options thanks to the big league deal he signed as the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft, and needed to stick on the major league roster despite pitching just 63 1/3 innings over three years that included Tommy John surgery.
Harvey's locker at minicamp that year was right next to Bundy's, and the two have developed and maintained a friendship since Harvey was drafted in 2013 in part because of the time they've spent rehabbing in Sarasota.
The Orioles didn't have a choice but to pitch Bundy at the major league level with scant Double-A experience at age 23 in 2016, or risk losing him on waivers. So he pitched the first half of the season out of the bullpen, then started in the second half and all of 2017. He's had to develop on the fly at the highest level, learning the rigors of a long season in the rotation without innings limits and while adding pitches such as his slider into the mix on the fly.
Considering all that, his 4.16 ERA over the past two seasons hints at a strong career ahead of him. The only caveat to any of it was the disparity in his performance on four days’ rest versus anything else, with his ERA at 4.68 on regular rest and 3.88 with an extra day or more in 2017.
The whole process, however, flew in the face of convention, both on a Tommy John front in the sense that Bundy threw 109 2/3 and 169 2/3 innings in consecutive seasons after such inactivity, and on a player development front in the sense that he was forced to pitch at the major league level so quickly.
If Harvey spends meaningful time in the majors this season, such prescriptions will likely once again be challenged. Showalter was happy to flout the norms as Bundy developed into a major league pitcher before his eyes.
To do it again wouldn't be too much of a stretch — especially if Harvey showcases the up-to-97-mph fastball and the deep, sharp curveball that he displayed in his final rehab start last season for Low-A Delmarva. Baseball America rated him the club's fourth-best prospect this offseason despite his inactivity, and some in the organization still have him atop their lists.
So even as Showalter reminds himself and the coaching staff of the self-control that will be required while they watch Harvey work in the spring, his defense of their plan with Bundy and his hope for Harvey's future won't be far from the tip of his tongue.
"I think it's been shown that some of these false parameters of Tommy John-surgery guys, I think you take each case as it comes," Showalter said. "I'm hoping that we get to the point in spring that we think it's going to be sooner than later. But I think we'll have a pretty good feel for where he is in spring. He'll get some innings here."