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Now In Majors, Orioles Top Prospect Dylan Bundy Adjusting To New Role

April 15, 2016
In what should be his first extended look in the majors, 2016 invariably will be a significant learning experience for Orioles' perennial top prospect Dylan Bundy.

The 23-year-old right-hander and former first-round pick has to adjust to being a major leaguer. He has to figure out, at least for now, how to prepare as a reliever after a minor league career in the starting rotation. He has to learn the weaknesses of opposing hitters and how to best approach them instead of just blowing away the competition with high-90s fastballs, head-shaking sliders and knee-wilting curves.

He also is learning to improve his vocabulary, one 50-cent word at a time. Terms like "paucity" and "profligate" and "rectitude."

Welcome to the majors, Dylan Bundy, and welcome to the wacky world that is the Orioles' bullpen, led by dual professor/class clown Darren O'Day.

The vocabulary story goes like this: Early in spring training, O'Day was addressing the pitchers and he used the word "arduous," meaning difficult, taxing, tiring.

One staff member happened to see a look of consternation briefly cross Bundy's face. That's all a veteran group needs to pounce on a newbie. After the talk, O'Day was informed of Bundy's momentary confusion, and he approached the rookie.

"Dylan, you don't know what that word meant, do you?" O'Day queried.

Bundy, a down-to-earth kid from Owasso, Okla., wasn't going to try to fake his way through. No, he admitted. Not really.

This is where O'Day, the erudite, sidearming reliever who likely would have been a plastic surgeon had baseball not worked out, thrives. 

Instead of torturing Bundy like some veterans would have, O'Day turned one word into a fun, learning, bonding experience for both of them -- but one that still reminds Bundy he is the bullpen pupil.

"Now I have an app on my phone that has both of us doing a word of the day," Bundy said, smiling. "I have to use it in a sentence every day [to O'Day]. It's fun. I don't mind it."

Yes, O'Day and Bundy are learning words together.

"We are both working on our vocabulary every day," O'Day said. "My vocabulary is getting better along with his at the same time. We are both polishing up our vernacular at the same time."

The point, subtle as it may be, is that Bundy is fitting in seamlessly into this Orioles bullpen and roster. There wasn't much of a choice. 

After being drafted fourth overall in 2011, Bundy signed a major league deal, which meant each season he would have to be placed on the 40-man roster while using a minor league option.

That didn't seem to be a problem at the time (amateurs no longer can sign big league deals). With his talent, it was assumed he'd be in the big leagues quickly. And Bundy was, pitching two games in relief in September 2012 at the age of 19.

The sky was the limit. But in 2013 injuries struck. He underwent elbow ligament replacement (Tommy John) surgery that June. He made it back to the minor league mound in 2014 but then was sidelined with a lat strain. Last year, he was shut down in June with right shoulder discomfort that was caused by a rare, calcium buildup. He made two, one-inning stints in the Arizona Fall League this offseason before being shelved with forearm/elbow stiffness.

His health again was a major concern heading into 2016. Because of that major league deal signed in 2011, however, Bundy was out of minor league options. 

So there were three scenarios for him this spring: Make the team with a good showing in exhibition games, be put on the disabled list or a third possibility that the Orioles really didn't want to envision.

"The worst-case scenario for us this spring was that he was healthy, and there wasn't anything really coming out [of his hand], and he wasn't getting anyone out," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "That didn't happen. So that was very quietly one of the best things to happen in Sarasota."

Bundy, in fact, had an event-free spring, allowing five earned runs (3.65 ERA) on 11 hits and two walks while striking out eight in 12.1 innings. He made the team on his own merit.

"It always helps when you pitch well and you felt like you earned it," Bundy said. "And I felt kind of like that's how spring training went."

The challenge now is to continue to pitch well in a new role. He can't be sent to the minors this year without being placed on waivers, and someone with his pedigree would be snatched up in a nanosecond. So he has to be effective enough in the bullpen. His teammates aren't concerned.

"He's healthy now. He's always had the talent," O'Day said. "He's still got that talent -- it's just a matter of being able to practice it by staying healthy."

Orioles closer Zach Britton is a former highly touted starter who was pushed into a bullpen role, also partially because he was out of options in 2014. He knows the transition Bundy will have to make, especially mentally, now that he isn't worrying about his health.

"As a starter, sometimes you feel like you've got to warm up for a half hour, otherwise you're not going to be ready to go. Then you go to the bullpen and you warm up in 10 pitches, and you're like, ‘Whoa, I'm healthy. I'm ready to go,'" Britton said. "That's what he is seeing right now, and the confidence is there. And I think that's the only thing that was holding him back, was just the confidence that he is healthy. Because the stuff is there, the makeup is there for him to be a really good pitcher for a long time."

Britton said he expects Bundy to end up back in the rotation, even as early as this season if the club needs help down the stretch. Bundy is not worrying about roles at this point. He's in a major league uniform for the first time since 2012, and that's his primary focus.

"It was hard. It was a rough three years being hurt all the time," Bundy said. "But that's in the past now, and I'm looking forward to this season."

Those who have followed Bundy are also looking forward to seeing him perform routinely on the brightest of stages. 

It would be a tremendous reward for a journey that has been, well, arduous.

Dan Connolly is the senior writer and content editor for BaltimoreBaseball.com

Issue 220: April 2016