With the Orioles beginning preparations in Sarasota ahead of their 20th anniversary at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, much of the buzz in camp has surrounded a young pitcher born seven months after the baseball cathedral first opened in downtown Baltimore.
Yes, let that marinate for a moment or two.
After being selected as the fourth overall pick of last June’s amateur draft, 19-year-old Dylan Bundy has drawn rave reviews from observers and teammates alike while displaying a plus-fastball in the mid to upper 90s and three other pitches that already have hitters shaking their heads during live batting practice, according to reports from Florida. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound right-hander will presumably begin his minor league career at Single-A Delmarva this season, but his track to the big leagues has the potential to be much shorter than the typical pitcher fresh out of high school.
“That kid Bundy is gonna be special….if he wants to,” center fielder Adam Jones said on his official Twitter account on Monday.
Never one to mince words, Jones tells it like he sees it.
Of course, before anyone proclaims him the future ace of the staff, Bundy has yet to throw a professional pitch — even if he appears to have more upside than any Baltimore pitching prospect in recent memory. Given their failed history in cultivating young hurlers over the years, the Orioles would be well served to protect their best pitching prospect in bubble wrap after the gushing about his potential since last June.
But the hype surrounding Bundy isn’t all that different than the anticipation for the famed “cavalry” of a couple years ago when then-manager Dave Trembley and many others were touting the potential of Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, and several others and how it would lead the Orioles from the abyss of losing season after losing season. It gave fans hope at the time, but the results have been mixed at best and generally regarded as disappointing when looking back at all the excitement.
Matusz? A disastrous 2011 season that included a 1-9 record and a 10.69 earned run average has made nearly everyone question the former first-round pick’s health, dedication to the game, and mental toughness.
Arrieta? He had been the steadiest of the original “Big Three” before elbow surgery cut his 2011 campaign short, but the tough right-hander still doesn’t show enough command to project as much better than a middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Tillman? The tall righty has never shown more than brief flashes of the ability the Orioles saw in him when acquiring him as part of the return for the Erik Bedard trade over four years ago. His future appears to be in the bullpen.
The most promising arrival of the crop, left-hander Zach Britton shows great upside after a solid rookie season, but a shoulder strain has caused fans to take pause in the early stages of spring training.
After a disappointing offseason void of any significant moves and the trade of veteran mainstay Jeremy Guthrie to the Colorado Rockies, the continued development of the young pitching will be even more critical in not only determining how the Orioles fare in 2012 but will also go a long way in deciding where the organization goes from here. With the current core of position players not getting any younger, the failure of Matusz, Britton, and Arrieta to take significant steps forward could entice executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette to begin selling off key pieces such as Jones and right fielder Nick Markakis to essentially begin the rebuilding process again.
And for a fan base devoid of a winning product since 1997, that’s a sobering proposition.
For Matusz (52 career starts) and Arrieta (40 career starts), the time is now to begin showing significant signs of maturity to prove the organization can pencil each into the rotation every fifth day without having to think twice. Britton needs to build upon his 4.61 ERA in 2011 and show why many scouts project him as a potential No. 2 starter in a major league rotation. If the trio makes major strides in 2012, it might be enough to push ownership to spend more aggressively at the big-league level while continuing to build the farm system behind the scenes next offseason.
Of course, manager Buck Showalter has issued the challenge for all starting candidates to be ready to perform in spring training as he tries to piece together a starting rotation. The Orioles skipper has said the days of young pitchers holding a spot by default are over, which means some combination of Matusz, Arrieta, and Britton could wind up at Triple-A Norfolk to begin the season while short-term options such as Jason Hammel and Dana Eveland fill rotation spots. Frankly, it’s an even more deflating scenario than the continued struggles of the young pitchers at the big-league level.
If those goals don’t come to fruition, the Orioles may be back to square one — admittedly, not a very long fall — as fans will hopelessly look ahead to the likes of Bundy and top infield prospects Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop to lead the club back to respectability.
It will be no different than two years ago.
Or six years ago.
Or nine years ago.
Waiting on exciting potential, but wondering if it will ever become reality.
It’s a mantra Orioles fans are all too familiar with.