The exact details of John Means’ left elbow prognosis await further testing over the next few days, but the fallout of what is expected to be a lengthy absence for the Orioles’ lone rotational mainstay is already rippling.
Baltimore lacks established big league starting pitchers, which in many ways is by design as executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias focuses on a rebuild in the minors rather than winning now with the Orioles. But that approach has turned the Orioles’ pitching staff into a major uncertainty just a week into the season.
Manager Brandon Hyde emphasized that additional testing will allow Baltimore to put a more specific time frame on Means’ absence. But Hyde admitted the 2019 All-Star will be out “a while,” and now he must piece together a rotation without his opening day starter.
“It’s not easy,” left-hander Paul Fry said. “Being here, you never want to see somebody go down. Especially, it takes a toll when you see him look down. But anyway, it’s going to make us all come together, I think. It’s a next-man-up type thing.”
Who that next man up is — and how he’ll perform once in that position — is less obvious. But there are internal pieces already on the 28-man roster who will be relied upon for bigger roles, and subsequent roster moves could be required to fill innings in the future.
Those already in place
The addition of right-hander Jordan Lyles this offseason as the highest-paid member of the rotation thrusts him into the role of de facto ace. His first outing of the season didn’t match that label, as he allowed five runs in five innings against the Tampa Bay Rays, but he improved Friday, allowing one run in 5 1/3 innings against the New York Yankees.
He’ll be required to chew innings, preserving a bullpen that will be charged with piggyback duties and long-relief roles frequently as the Orioles navigate a rotation devoid of Means. That shouldn’t be an issue for Lyles, who pitched 180 innings for the Texas Rangers in 2021.
“Coming into this season, I want to get deep into games,” Lyles said after the Orioles’ 2-1 walk-off win Friday night against the Yankees. “I want to save some arms out there. I think that matters over a course of the season.”
Beyond Lyles, the remaining members of the rotation are far from established big leaguers. Either way, Hyde will look to push several of them for longer outings, cognizant of the potential strain on the bullpen.
Right-hander Tyler Wells — who starts Saturday against the Yankees — has yet to maximize the potential of his power fastball and got off to a poor start to the season, lasting just 1 2/3 innings and allowing four runs against the Rays. After being featured as a reliever last year, he’ll be on a shorter leash.
“I think Tyler Wells, we’re gonna continue with the plan that was in place right now,” Hyde said. “But the other guys, we need to stretch some guys out.”
Left-hander Bruce Zimmermann turned in four scoreless innings during the home opener, and right-hander Spenser Watkins — scheduled to start Monday — is similar to Wells and Zimmermann in that they each have minimal major league experience. Watkins was called up this week to start Tuesday, lasting just three innings against the Brewers.
That crop could surprise. But it would be just that — a surprise — for reliable length to be expected out of any of them.
Those who are here
Hyde is reluctant to mess with a player’s role if he’s found success. That’s the case for left-hander Keegan Akin and right-hander Mike Baumann, two long relievers who have started games for the Orioles in previous seasons.
Akin and Baumann have combined to allow three hits and no runs in seven innings. It’s the kind of production Hyde hopes to keep out of the bullpen rather than moving them back into starting roles.
“I like guys to feel good and put them in positions to have success, and both those guys are off to such good starts,” Hyde said. “We’re talking about what the right thing to do is, and then we’re factoring in everything right now. But both those guys are thrown out of the ‘pen as long guys, and as of right now, they’re staying in that role.”
Alex Wells could find his way into a spot start, coming off a season in which he pitched 42 2/3 innings with eight starts. He hasn’t pitched out of the bullpen yet this season, making him an easier candidate for an adjusted role.
Those who have been here
Some roster moves inside the organization will be easier than others. With left-hander Zac Lowther, for instance, Elias won’t need to make a corresponding move to free a space on the 40-man roster. That’s an added incentive to look Lowther’s way for innings, even after a spring in which he walked more batters (five) than he struck out (four) in 4 1/3 frames.
Lowther started six games last year, just once working past five innings. But even five innings would be a boost for a rotation with a major hole.
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Right-hander Chris Ellis is another option with previous Orioles experience, starting six games last season. But Ellis, who’s with Triple-A Norfolk, isn’t on the 40-man roster. That would require some maneuvering — although Elias should be able to sneak a player through waivers.
And then there’s always right-hander Matt Harvey, who was signed to a minor league deal after spending 2021 with Baltimore. His situation is more complicated, however, with an MLB investigation ongoing into Harvey’s testimony during the trial of former Los Angeles Angels communications director Eric Kay surrounding the death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs. A suspension could follow the conclusion of that review.
Those who could be here
There’s a perpetual clamoring for several of Baltimore’s top pitching prospects to find their way to Camden Yards sooner rather than later, but Hyde shut down talk of Means’ injury in any way accelerating the process.
“I would never want to rush a prospect to the big leagues,” Hyde said. “I’m not there, so when they feel like their prospects are ready, then we’re going to welcome them.”
The closest to arriving is right-hander Kyle Bradish, who’s in Triple-A and already a member of the Orioles’ 40-man squad. Bradish is ranked the No. 9 prospect in the Orioles’ farm system, and the 25-year-old has started his Norfolk season well, allowing two hits and no runs in four innings.
Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, baseball’s top pitching prospect, has also excelled in two Triple-A starts, combining to allow two runs in nine innings. And left-hander DL Hall, the No. 3 prospect in Baltimore’s pipeline, is another option on the horizon. But Hall is starting the season in Double-A Bowie as he continues to work back from an elbow injury suffered in 2021.
Those three could all be in the rotation by the end of this season and become mainstays over the next few years. But replacing Means with one of the trio isn’t likely, at least at this stage.