Sports reporter Jon Meoli reports from Orioles minicamp on pitchers Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey, and their clean bills of health. (Baltimore Sun video)
It's one thing to be told that something is informal and largely unstructured, as the Orioles' young pitchers who traveled south for the team's annual January minicamp were advised before the three-day session began Monday.
Then, as young right-hander Joe Gunkel did, you volunteer to throw a rare outdoor bullpen on the opening day of the camp, in far warmer climes than your native Pennsylvania, and find you're on a very short list.
"I thought more people would be wanting to throw bullpens today," he said, shrugging after a brief session on the mound on a day when nearly everyone else merely worked out. "They said, 'The only person throwing is Joe.' OK, everyone come watch me now."
Others, like newly acquired pitchers C.J. Riefenhauser and Jeff Beliveau, threw off flat ground. The rest played catch and worked out under the eye of the organization's training and coaching staffs.
The message was simple: Let this be what you need it to be, and let it jump-start the season that's fast approaching.
"There's no pressure in this situation," Gunkel said. "They make it clear that no one is making a team in this thing. They're just trying to get to know guys, and we're all down here having fun."
"Some of them won't even throw," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "This is [pitching coach Dave Wallace's] thing, and we've done it for a while. It's a great exercise that our ownership allows us to do that a lot of clubs don't.
"This is completely voluntary … but the reputation of the camp has gotten around and people like coming. It's very low-key but it immeasurably helps us get on with business when we start in February, as opposed to wasting three or four days or a week trying to figure out where we are."
Where the 14 pitchers and two catchers were in their preparations varied, but in finding out where they stand in January, Showalter said, they avoid surprises when they arrive.
It was good, for instance, to see 2011 first-round draft pick Dylan Bundy with the team, he said.
Bundy lost all of 2013 to Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, returned for part of 2014, then dealt with shoulder tendinitis and forearm tightness in 2015, but said he's healthy. He is only throwing off flat ground during the minicamp and is scheduled to throw his first bullpen in preparation for an important 2016 season next week, he said.
Fellow top pitching prospect Hunter Harvey, who has had tightness in his forearm on and off and hasn't pitched in a game since July 2014, already has a few bullpen sessions under his belt as he gets ready to return to the mound in 2016 and make up for lost time.
Bundy and Harvey did some early conditioning work together Monday, partners in expectations paired together doing running drills, while other teammates paired up for quick games of catch before many retreated inside to the weight room.
Others were in different parts of their offseason programs, too. Left-handers Donnie Hart and Tanner Scott finished up in the Arizona Fall League in mid-November, and were on different timetables than former teammates whose last true games were the end of the affiliated schedule in September or the Fall Instructional League a few weeks later.
Not far away, Gunkel and Riefenhauser worked in a bullpen under the watchful eyes of Orioles coaches, scouts, and executives. Showalter said Beliveau, who had shoulder surgery last year, threw as part of his rehabilitation.
Gunkel, acquired last season from the Boston Red Sox for outfielder Alejandro De Aza, said it wasn't the most comfortable situation to throw in, but eventually it becomes another bullpen.
Riefenhauser, a left-hander who came to Baltimore in November from the Seattle Mariners in a trade for catcher Steve Clevenger, threw off flat ground in front of his new coaches. He typically spends his Monday mornings throwing at a facility near his Mahopac, N.Y., home, then takes the 10 a.m. Metro-North train into Manhattan to work out.
He, too, won't throw off a mound until next Monday, but didn't mind throwing for such an audience so early in his preparations.
"After talking to those guys, they were just saying, 'Take your time here,'" Riefenhauser said. "'This is just to get to know everybody, let us know you and see how things go with that.' Tampa [Bay] did something similar, they called it the rookie camp or something, but this is a little more hands-on. We're training, weight room, we're throwing, stretching, stuff like that."
It's not all informal, however. Many attendees will throw some kind of bullpen before departing Wednesday, save for the ones who are coming off injuries or had extended seasons in the Arizona Fall League. As many as seven could throw today.
And in doing so under the supervision of Wallace and major league bullpen coach Dom Chiti, the young pitchers get attention they wouldn't normally get from the top coaches in the organization.
Last year, reliever Mychal Givens rode an adjustment to his sidearm delivery made during minicamp from Double-A all the way to the major league bullpen.
Showalter mentioned a few pitchers, including right-hander Andrew Triggs and left-handers Chris Lee, Ashur Tolliver, and Ariel Miranda, as some he hoped to see throw in Sarasota before he departs tonight for an engagement in Baltimore.
Those are just a handful of the intriguing names at the camp, including power right-hander David Hess, plus Hart and Scott. Four pitchers who attended the minicamp a year ago — Givens, Oliver Drake, Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright — made their major league debuts in 2015.