Life without Means will stretch pitching-thin O's

Injured lefty leaves big hole that Baltimore seems likely to fill from within

April 16th, 2022

BALTIMORE -- The Orioles don’t know yet the precise nature of the left elbow strain that landed  on the injured list Friday, or how long exactly they should expect it to sideline their ace. Those particulars will be finalized in the days to come, with Means scheduled for further testing after an MRI revealed an injury that, although the club isn’t specifying, appears significant.

“He’s doing additional tests to determine if there is structural damage to his elbow,” manager Brandon Hyde said before Friday’s 2-1, 11-inning, walk-off win over the Yankees. It’s still undetermined how long [he might be out].”

What did become clear in the two days since forearm tightness forced Means from Wednesday’s start was that the Orioles are no longer asking whether Means will miss time. They are preparing to be without their ace for a while.

“Losing your Opening Day starter -- we don’t know how long it's going to be,” Hyde said. “But for a while, it’s going to be hard. Guys are going to have to step up. … To have him out is going to be challenging.”

The challenge that scenario presents would be considerable for any club. It should be especially so for the pitching-thin Orioles, who for four years have turned to Means for dependability atop their long-struggling staff, and supplemented it only with marginal depth behind him this offseason.

Here are a few ways they can proceed, without Means in the mix:

Lean on internal depth
With righty Dean Kremer also on the 10-day injured list with a left oblique strain, the Orioles find themselves with 40 percent of their Opening Day rotation already on the shelf. The short-term candidates to fill those gaps? Hyde said righty Spenser Watkins would likely plug the first hole Monday, lining up behind Jordan Lyles, Tyler Wells and Bruce Zimmermann. Long man Alexander Wells is also rostered, and righty Chris Ellis and No. 27 prospect Zac Lowther are at Triple-A Norfolk. Ellis fared the best of that trio last season, pitching to a 2.49 ERA in six big league starts.

The Orioles need innings and will lean heavily on the veteran Lyles, who held the Yankees to one run across the first 5 1/3 innings of Friday’s marathon win. The Orioles finally broke through in the 11th, when Ramón Urías worked a walk-off walk against Aroldis Chapman.

Move some pieces around
What about Mike Baumann and Keegan Akin, both former starting prospects who opened the season in the Orioles’ bullpen? They are part of the club’s current discussions, Hyde said, though he indicated they’re likely to remain relievers for now. Baumann has worked exclusively as a reliever since debuting last August, while Akin struggled mightily as a starter (6.23 ERA) for parts of the past two seasons.

The early returns for both have been strong, Baumann and Akin combining to log eight scoreless innings out of the ‘pen.

“I like to build off success,” Hyde said. “Both of those guys are in position to have success, and they’re off to such good starts. We’re talking about what the right thing to do is. Both of those guys have thrown out of the ‘pen as long guys, and as of now they’re staying in that role.”

Don't forget about Harvey
The Orioles are unlikely to make a trade or signing in response to the Means news, but they should have some internal veteran depth available at some point soon. The question is when.

Hyde said he didn’t know how Matt Harvey was progressing at extended spring camp, where the 33-year-old righty is ramping up after returning to the club on a Minor League deal on April 8. Harvey struggled in his first season with Baltimore last year, but he did eat innings, soaking up 127 2/3 while pitching to a 6.27 ERA.

Accelerate the prospects
There was another notable transaction Friday, the Orioles revealing that left-handed pitching prospect Kevin Smith had cleared outright waivers. Baltimore’s No. 18 prospect per MLB Pipeline, Smith was already at Triple-A but was also on the 40-man roster, protected from the Rule 5 Draft last year and showing well early at Norfolk. But Smith wasn’t viewed as the next man up, and outrighting him now clearly indicates the club isn’t interested in accelerating his development based on big league need.

The same applies to the more highly touted Norfolk rotation mates Kyle Bradish (No. 10) and Grayson Rodriguez (No. 2 in system, No. 6 overall), who’ve both excelled in small samples this season. Baseball’s top pitching prospect, Rodriguez certainly won’t be rushed and is just two starts into his first stint at Triple-A. Bradish made 19 starts at the level last year, but he completed only four (scoreless) innings on 58 pitches in his season debut Tuesday. He’s not a candidate for promotion until he’s fully built up.

“I think [the front office] is going to move the prospects when they’re ready to move the prospects, not determined by what our record is or what’s happening with the Major League roster,” Hyde said. “When they feel the prospects are ready, we’re going to welcome them.”