The Baltimore Orioles, fresh off of an 18-inning contest with the Mariners, needed another arm to bolster their staff while they fight for a playoff spot. Seven relievers combined to pitch nearly 13 innings in Tuesday night's (or Wednesday morning's, depending on your coast) game, so even if it's just a short-term boost, one was needed. That's where top prospect Dylan Bundy comes in.
The O's have called Bundy up from Double-A Bowie, where the 19-year-old right-hander ended his first full season as a pro. More specifically, where his season ended back on September 5, two weeks ago. If you're thinking 19 is young for a pitcher to make it to the majors, you'd be correct: the average age for a pitcher in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League is 20, and in the Eastern League Bundy was just promoted from, average pitcher age was nearly 25. (Not that they are all prospects at that point.)
That, and because just three pitchers besides Bundy have pitched in the majors at 19 in the last 10 years: Edwin Jackson threw 22 innings in 2003, Madison Bumgarner 10 frames in 2009, and, of course, Felix Hernandez, who started 12 games and threw 84 innings back in 2005 after throwing 88 in Triple-A.
All three were major pitching prospects. Jackson had begun the year #99 on Baseball America's top 100, but ranked fourth overall in 2004's list after his strong 2003 finished in the bigs. Bumgarner was a top-10 prospect in 2009, and came in at No. 14 overall before 2010. Hernandez was the No. 2 prospect in the minors before his rookie season, and his initial performance made it seem as if he should have been even higher.
Bundy has a lot in common with this group. He was drafted fourth overall in the 2011 draft, and began this season, his first, in Low-A. He was the No. 10 prospect in baseball before throwing a pitch professionally, and the absurd 40/2 K/BB and 0.00 ERA he posted at his first stop helped justify that. High-A was a little tougher, but Bundy handled himself, giving up a 2.84 ERA while striking out over 10 batters per nine innings in 57 frames. Double-A wasn't nearly as easy for him, as he struck out 13 batters against eight walks in his three starts, but the Orioles are giving him the call -- even if it's brief -- to the majors anyway.
Teenage hurlers as a rarity isn't a new thing. Go all the way back to 1992 -- when pitchers still routinely had their arms run into the ground start after start -- instead of 2002, and you see just two other 19-year-old hurlers: Rick Ankiel in 1999, and another Oriole, Matt Riley, in the same year. Ankiel didn't end up working out in the long run, but in his initial stint with the Cardinals -- 33 innings, five starts, 10.6 strikeouts per nine -- it was hard to find complaint. Like the others, Ankiel was a major prospect, the No. 2 overall heading into 1999, and the No. 1 overall thanks to his strong debut in the bigs. Riley ranked 20th heading into '99, and pitched at High- and Double-A before coming to the majors. Unlike the rest of the group, though, Riley faltered, posting a 7.36 ERA and half as many punch outs as free passes in 11 frames.
Those 11 innings might not seem like much, but that brought his season total to 188. In a revelation that will not shock you, Riley's elbow gave out in 2001, causing him to miss the entire season, this after an awful 2000 campaign in the minors. This time around, the Orioles are being safer: Bundy has thrown 103 frames, and it would be a surprise if he hit even 110 before the O's cut him off. They can't all be Dwight Gooden -- 218 innings as a 19-year-old with the Mets -- nor should they be, as Riley reminds.
There's no rush to bring Bundy in to the majors forever right now, either, just because he's potentially debuting as soon as tonight -- this isn't akin to the Manny Machado situation, given the risks are completely different for teenage position players. Bumgarner wasn't part of the 2010 Giants until late June, despite his 2009 debut, as San Francisco sent him to Triple-A Fresno for the first time before committing to him in the rotation. That's the kind of plan the Orioles are likely to stick to with the right-hander, given his scuffles at Double-A, as well as the fact that, as a contending team, it might not be easy for the Orioles to ramp up Bundy's inning totals in the same way another minor-league campaign could.
Bundy might not even last the rest of September with Baltimore, given how carefully they monitored his workload in 2012. The O's haven't had the greatest luck with pitching prospects as of late, especially once they get close to or in the majors, and Bundy absolutely has the highest ceiling of that group. Risking him now would damage their future, and as great as the playoffs would be in the present, the O's will be better off having a potential ace around for the next six years rather than pushing the issue. Giving him a few innings in relief, though, in order to keep their bullpen from tiring over the next week or two, is a sound -- and bold -- move, though.