SARASOTA, Fla. — The path any heralded pitching prospect takes to the major leagues has obstacles. With the burden of huge expectations on their shoulders, few young talented pitchers break into the major leagues without taking their share of lumps.
For the Orioles' top two prospects — right-handers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman — it has been no different. Each pitcher made it to the major leagues in his first full professional season, then faced adversity over the next year.
Bundy, 21, lost his entire 2013 season to Tommy John elbow ligament reconstruction and still faces part of the long and tedious rehabilitation that follows the procedure. Like Bundy, who made his major league debut late in the 2012 season, Gausman jumped to the majors from Double-A Bowie last May but was knocked around during his debut in the starting rotation.
Both are important to the club's long-term success, and the Orioles hope each will play a role in pushing toward a playoff berth down the stretch in 2014. That's easier said than done, especially in an organization that has a recent history of failing to convert expectations into results.
But along the row of pitchers' lockers in the Orioles clubhouse this spring, the duo, unlike some of the organization's previous top pitching prospects, has had the advantage of being able to lean on a group of pitchers who know exactly what it's like to be under the microscope.
The remaining members of the Orioles' vaunted "cavalry" group, as it was called by former manager Dave Trembley in 2009 — right-hander Chris Tillman and left-handers Brian Matusz and Zach Britton — were in Bundy's and Gausman's shoes not so long ago.
"All of our guys are young, so they were all going through the same stuff," said Gausman, 23. "Look at Tillman. He was [one of the top] prospects in baseball at one point. So all of them have kind of been through this stuff at some point.
"Those guys went through stuff — the rookie year that Britton had, I've talked to him about that. He got up and had crazy success right away, and then kind of got thrown a curveball. It's all those things I think you can learn from as far as how they got through it."
Voices of experience
Tillman, Matusz and Britton were part of that "cavalry," which also included the since-departed Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergesen.
Tillman emerged as a staff leader last season, winning 16 games, and he will be the club's Opening Day starter. Matusz, who is enjoying a solid spring while still being stretched out as a starter, was the club's best left-handed relief pitcher last season. And after struggling to find the form of his 2011 rookie season, Britton likely will earn a bullpen role to open the season after a dominant spring.
"If anything, I think we understand how they're feeling — being in big league camp and trying to make your stamp on the coaches," Britton said. "When you're that age, you think you pitch well and you deserve a shot in the big leagues.
"There are things that happen from the option status or contract status that can affect things. The hardest thing when you're younger is understanding it's not all necessarily, 'You pitch well and you're in the big leagues right now.'"
Gausman said he turned to Matusz for advice last season when he was moved to a bullpen role for the first time in his career.
"One of the things that really helped me last year — obviously, you dream of coming up and having success right away and kind of hitting the ground running and dominating — and I didn't do that last year," Gausman said. "That was tough for me. That was the first level that I really struggled at in my entire life.
"It's nice to be able to go to a guy like Brian Matusz. He's started before, and he's had some tough outings and some great outings. It was good for me to talk to him about what to get ready for in the bullpen and things like that, because I had never done it before until last season. There was a lot thrown at me, so those guys are awesome to go to about things on and off the field."
Bundy said he has leaned on Tillman for advice. His locker was next to the five-year veteran's during spring training.
"He's good to talk to because, four years ago, he was in the same situation as I was, trying to get through in the big leagues," Bundy said. "Unfortunately, I had an injury, but it's still the same thing. He's had success. He's helped me out, told me what to do and what not to do. I can always ask him a question, and he might answer it jokingly, or he might tell me in a serious manner what he thinks, and I trust him.
"They've told me to just go out and pitch and don't worry about it. You can only control what you can control on the field. You can't control what else goes on, the politics and stuff like that, decisions that you're not able to make. All I focus on is going out there and pitching my game, and good things will happen."
Depth allows patience
The situations for Bundy and Gausman are different from those the original group found itself in.
The Orioles have five quality starters in their rotation and the best pitching depth they've had in years, so they can be patient.
But when Tillman, Matusz and Britton came up to the major leagues, the club needed them to be ready quickly.
"I think the big part of it is that we've got five guys in here now who are capable of going out there every fifth day and giving their team a real chance to win," Tillman said. "I think that was something we were missing in the past. And that's why we were in that situation, because we didn't have that luxury before. I think that shows where this organization is at right now; they've worked to get this team where it needs to be."
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said Gausman and Bundy have benefited not only from having other younger pitchers from whom to learn, but also by working out of the bullpen.
"So in order to do that, you have to have established starting pitchers in the big leagues. I would think the club is making good progress toward building a competitive pitching staff by developing some pitchers in the big leagues and signing a couple of veteran pitchers like we did this year."
Bundy (15th) and Gausman (20th) are among Baseball America's top 100 prospects. And left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, 20, is just behind them, ranked No. 65 on the publication's list.
Right-hander Hunter Harvey, 19, the club's first pick in last year's draft, already has made other top-prospect lists. Left-hander Tim Berry and right-hander Mike Wright add to a growing number of young pitchers who have shown that they could help the organization in the near future.
"If you have four [prospects], and one of them hits, great," manager Buck Showalter said. "If you get two to hit, you are above the curve. If you get three, you should be ecstatic, and if all four of them hit, well, that's real good. But I look at it reality-wise. That's why you want to have as many [young pitchers] as you can. We look at all of them, not just those guys. I can rattle off five other guys' names."
Hope for late-season help
While Gausman and Bundy are a major part of the Orioles' future, they'll have to wait to help the club at the major league level.
Bundy is scheduled to throw from a full mound for the first time on Opening Day and could be ready to return in June. Although Gausman proved to be a weapon in the bullpen last year and has had a solid spring, he'll begin at Triple-A Norfolk so as to continue pitching as a starter.
"They're going to get there, and they're going to be very good, and sometimes I think it's realizing that and not letting it affect you when you do go down," Britton said. "I think we help them along the way. These guys are very talented. I think the group of us, we were very highly touted when we were coming up, and sometimes the transition takes a little longer for some people.
"I think these guys, we have very similar personalities, so it's a little easier for us to interact and talk about those things and have that good friendship. We're still fairly young, so we're not that far removed. … They're special, and I think they're further along than we were at this point in their careers."
Everyone in the organization hopes the pair can contribute at the major league level this season.
"I see myself in these guys," Tillman said. "In this game, you learn from failure and your mistakes. These guys are talented, and they're in the right hands. They're good enough people, and if they keep working hard, they'll be there with us soon."