John Means never got the opportunity to make his Opening Day start last summer, despite being bestowed the honor for the first time. A nagging bout of arm fatigue stood in the way of that, the result of ramping up after quarantine and the long layoff. Now, he’s getting another chance.
In a long-expected announcement before Friday’s 11-9 win over the Pirates, manager Brandon Hyde officially named Means the Orioles’ Opening Day starter for the second consecutive season. Means will toe the Fenway Park rubber against Eduardo Rodriguez when the O’s open the 2021 season against the Red Sox on April 1.
“He told me he’s going to make it this time,” Hyde said. “He was very happy to hear the news from me. It’s always a special moment as a manager, to give great news and this is something he’ll hold dear for the rest of his life.”
The 27-year-old southpaw has been the Orioles’ rotation’s most stable presence since emerging from the roster periphery into an unlikely ace in '19, when he was the runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year honors and went 12-11 with a 3.60 ERA. After a short injured list stint forced Tommy Milone into the Opening Day assignment in his place, Means followed up his rookie year with a disjointed '20 season, enduring minor arm issues and personal tragedy en route to going 2-4 with a 4.53 ERA.
“Everything he dealt with last year, he is a high-character guy, and we felt for him,” Hyde said. “He has definitely earned it.”
But Means was best version of himself down the stretch, honing increased velocity to produce a 1.52 ERA and 30/3 SO/BB ratio over his final four starts. It was an ace-like performance for a pitcher who, upon learning of his first Opening Day assignment months prior, said, “If you would’ve told me that two years ago, I would’ve laughed in your face.”
The reality, though, is that Means is a far different pitcher from the one he was then.
A former 11th round Draft pick who was never a top prospect, Means made his MLB debut in '18 out of necessity: he had already been home for weeks when the Orioles, desperate for pitching amid their roster sell-off, summoned him for one start simply because of his presence on the 40-man roster. He operated with a low-80s fastball then; now his heater lives in the mid-90s, with 88 percentile (elite) spin rate. He’s used technology-focused training to develop his changeup into his primary secondary pitch, added two distinct breaking balls and sliced his walk rate while increasing the number of swings and misses.
Heading into '21, Means was the only true lock atop an Orioles rotation set to feature a mix of rookies (Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin) and veteran reclamation projects (Matt Harvey and Félix Hernández) and littered with other question marks. And for a rebuilding team that’s used the last few years to turn over its roster significantly in search of building blocks, Means remains the best example of the kind of unexpected jewels such searches can uncover.
“At this time two years ago, he was a long-man candidate,” Hyde said. “He has come a long way. … He’s really turning into a true starter with a four-pitch mix.”
The Orioles are planning to add top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez (No. 2, per MLB Pipeline), DL Hall (No. 4), Kyle Bradish (No. 15) and Kevin Smith (No. 19) to camp this weekend, a source told MLB.com. The organization had been holding its top lower-level pitching prospects back for ramp up purposes, given the delayed start of the Minor League season. All were limited to work at the O’s alternate training site in Bowie, Md., last summer, with Rodriguez and Hall also training at instructional camp in the fall.
This spring, all four will be stationed at the O’s Twin Lakes complex and make periodical trips to big league camp at Ed Smith Stadium, but won’t appear in official games. Once the season begins, Hall, Bradish and Smith are expected to comprise the bulk of the rotation at Double-A Bowie, the same level Smith reached in the Mets system in '19. Hall and Bradish progressed as high as Advanced A (Bradish in the Angels’ system) before last year’s shutdown. Rodriguez, 21, excelled at Class A Delmarva in '19. He’ll begin '21 at either Advanced A or Double-A.
The Orioles are returning to a television screen near you. The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network announced plans Friday to broadcast two of the club’s remaining Grapefruit League games: March 23 against the Rays and March 25 against the Pirates. The games would be the first broadcast this spring by the network, which is majority-owned by the Orioles.
From the trainer’s room
• Hyde confirmed right-hander Félix Hernández would miss his next scheduled start despite “feeling better” Friday, three days after exiting Tuesday’s loss at Tampa with right elbow discomfort. Plans remain unclear for the veteran, who is in camp on a Minor League deal looking to claim a rotation job. Hyde said previously Hernández would not undergo imaging on the elbow, and would continue to get treatment.
• The prognosis is better for infielder Richie Martin, whose Grapefruit League debut is imminent after playing in a “B” game Friday against the Pirates at Pirate City. Martin is recovering from hamate surgery and could return to official exhibition play by the end of the weekend, Hyde said.
The Orioles announced Thursday night that they’d lost right-hander Ashton Goudeau on a waiver claim to the Giants, clearing a 40-man roster spot prior to Opening Day. The O’s claimed Goudeau off waivers from the Pirates this winter, stretching him out mostly on the backfields once camp began. They will need at least three 40-man roster spots come the end of camp if Hernández, Matt Harvey and Wade LeBlanc are all to make the club.
The O’s will hand the ball to righty rotation hopeful Harvey when they return to Ed Smith Stadium on Saturday night to play the Yankees. First pitch is set for 6:05 pm ET from Sarasota.