FORT MYERS, FLA. — Top pitching prospect Hunter Harvey was throwing smoke again Tuesday afternoon. His sharp 96 mph fastball is the stuff that player development dreams are made of, so you’re already hearing speculation about his chances of pitching in the major leagues this season.
Heaven knows, the Orioles need every good arm they can get, so there is nothing unusual in fantasizing about what he could mean when added to a rotation that already features the last two top pitching prospects to come up through the system.
And that’s where it should end, at least for now.
There is one reason to bring him up as soon as he looks like he’s ready, and that’s to try to get the very most out of this year’s major league team because, well, you know what might happen next. There are all sorts of reasons to slow-play him through the minor leagues for a big chunk of this season, if not the whole year.
Harvey, 23, has a chance to be special and he said after his first exhibition start that he wants to make the decision to keep him at the minor league level as hard on the Orioles front office as possible, which is exactly the attitude he should bring to the ballpark — at whatever level — every day.
He pitched well again and manager Buck Showalter said Tuesday that he’ll remain in the spring rotation for at least one more start. The Orioles continue to give the outward impression that they’re just getting a long look at him, but Showalter hinted earlier in camp that it might be hard to resist the temptation to accelerate Harvey’s development.
“He’s got a chance to make it a little tough on us,’’ Showalter said last week, responding to a question about how long Harvey would stay with the major league club this spring.
Showalter pointed out at that time that there is no real consensus on the right number of innings a young pitcher should throw or the level of play he should throw them at in the first season he is fully cleared to pitch.
The Orioles manager also said he sensed a lot of teams have looked at the way the Orioles handled the post-Tommy John-surgery development of right-hander Dylan Bundy as a model for their own young pitchers.
Bundy made the major league club out of spring training two years ago after pitching just 63 1/3 minor league innings from 2013 to 2015, but he really doesn’t provide a comparable case study. He signed a major league deal out of high school, so he was already out of options when he arrived in camp in 2016. The club didn’t have much choice but to keep him.
It worked out well. He pitched half a season in the bullpen and then finished the year in the starting rotation, but was held to a total of just 109 2/3 innings and pitched at least six innings in just three of his 14 starts.
Bundy would come back last year and establish himself as the Orioles’ most consistent starter, winning a team-high 13 games and pitching 169 2/3 innings.
Maybe Harvey is ready to follow in Bundy’s cleat marks. He certainly is starting to look like he’s capable of sticking at the major league level, but the Orioles don’t have to push him and — if they feel they must to beef up this year’s starting rotation — there still are some decent pitchers available in the free agent market.
Keep in mind that Harvey has never really pitched a full professional season. The ligament tear was one of three significant injuries that have interrupted his minor league career. He also struggled with a sports hernia and suffered a freak leg fracture.
Bringing him up before, say, August would be an indication the front office is not taking the long view, especially if ownership has still not decided whether to extend the contracts of Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette. Harvey’s future should be based on the long-term best interests of both him and the team.
It would seem like a better idea to just let him go back down and pitch for a while in a lower-stress environment so he can settle into a routine and, you would hope, dominate minor league hitters so completely that he gives the club no choice but to bring him up late in the season.