Facing uncertain future, Means determined to pitch again

June 15th, 2024

BALTIMORE -- ' baseball career was always improbable, but it’s maybe never been more uncertain.

Facing his second grueling, 18-month elbow rehab in two years, Means is unlikely to return to a Major League mound until late 2025 or potentially early ‘26.

But the Orioles’ longest-tenured starter, and their former ace, is also a free agent after this season. And barring some creative Brandon Woodruff-type deal, it looks like Means will hit the open market far from healthy and having made only 10 starts since 2021.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Means said, speaking publicly for the first time since undergoing his second Tommy John surgery on June 3. “I don’t really want to think about it right now. Just see where it goes. I feel really confident in my ability to pitch on the field, just need to have the elbow keep up.

“My [elbow injury] is kind of an anomaly,” he said. “I throw 91 mph and my pitches don’t move a whole lot. So I think mine’s pretty fixable. But who knows? Baseball is beautiful and horrifying at the same time.”

Means has lived that dichotomy over the past three-plus years. The former 11th-round pick (No. 331 overall) in the 2014 MLB Draft emerged as the O’s unlikely ace of their lean rebuilding years. He was an All-Star in ‘19, and had a 3.73 ERA in 67 games (63 starts) over his first three full big league seasons from 2019-21.

Means threw a unique, near-perfect no-hitter on May 5, 2021, and entered the following year as the ace of an upstart Baltimore team that would soon grow into a perennial contender.

But Means made only two starts in 2022 before undergoing Tommy John surgery that April. He returned to Baltimore in September 2023, but he never fully overcame his elbow/forearm ailments, making four starts before a flare-up caused the left-hander to miss the postseason.

That incident delayed his start to the ‘24 season, which Means began on the IL before recording a 2.61 ERA in four starts. His final start came on May 22 in St. Louis, where Means began experiencing elbow discomfort during his pregame bullpen and was pulled after three innings.

The 31-year-old underwent Tommy John surgery less than two weeks later.

“The first step is taking care of this, and we’re going to support him,” Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said in late May. “We have a long relationship, and he’s a special member of this organization, just given everything that he’s done.

“I’m sure we’ll be dialoguing with him as we get him back up on his feet medically. He’s going to make it back. He’s a big, strong guy. And once he gets this elbow injury fully behind him -- which hasn’t really been the case, it seems like, going back the last year -- I think he’s got a lot of really good pitching ahead of him.”

Means largely echoed that statement on Saturday, though in muted, more cautiously-optimistic tones. He said he would conduct most of his rehab at home in Kansas, where he plans to take advantage of the unexpected down time by spending time with his young son, McCoy.

“Physically, mentally, hopefully this [rehab] is a little easier,” Means said. “I will try to put a little less pressure on myself this time, and just try to worry about the family and spending time with them.”

Asked if he considered retirement rather than undergo another operation, Means quickly rebuked that possibility entirely. He believes he will return to the mound at some point, whether that’s with Baltimore or somewhere else.

“I’m going to take it day by day and try to do the best I can to get it back, and get it right this time,” Means said. “I still want to pitch and I’d like to fail on the field before I give it up. I feel like if I go out there, I can still pitch, and I still feel really confident in my ability.”