Unlike in the past, Orioles able to take their time with pitching prospects

Young pitchers rely on veterans as they launch their professional careers

March 30, 2014|By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun

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

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