A near formality when the first edition of spring training began almost five months ago became official Friday, when Orioles manager Brandon Hyde named All-Star left-hander John Means the club’s Opening Day starter for the July 24 matchup with the Boston Red Sox.
Means, 27, finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2019, posting a 3.60 ERA across 31 appearances. He opened the year in Baltimore’s bullpen, a surprise member of that season’s Opening Day roster, before pitching his way into the Orioles’ rotation and eventually into the All-Star Game.
“For a guy to do what he did, it’s a great story, coming out of spring training barely making the club and having some really impressive relief appearances,” Hyde said. “Next thing you know, he’s in our rotation and making an All-Star game. Really finished the season strong, too. He’s definitely earned it.”
An 11th-round pick in 2014 out of West Virginia, Means was never considered to be among the Orioles’ top score of prospects. Believing he had topped out in Double-A in 2018, he contemplated retirement, making himself a LinkedIn page to prepare for life after baseball. But a promotion to Triple-A Norfolk eventually led to a September call-up when the Orioles ran low on pitching. He made his major league debut as a reliever at Fenway Park, where in two weeks he will serve as Baltimore’s Opening Day starter.
Hyde said Means will likely also start one of the Orioles’ three preseason exhibitions, lined up for July 19′s game against the Philadelphia Phillies. He said there is “a really good chance” that veteran right-hander Alex Cobb will directly follow Means in the rotation, though the next two weeks before the season will help determine the official order.
For Means, the honor represents more affirmation of the offseason work he put in ahead of the 2019 season, repeatedly driving across the state of Missouri from Kansas City to go to P3 Premier Pitching & Performance in St. Louis. Fine-tuning his changeup with Chris Holt, now the Orioles’ director of pitching, that spring turned the pitch into a weapon that tore through the New York Yankees’ lineup in a relief appearance on Opening Day. He posted a 2.50 ERA in the first half, earning the Orioles’ lone All-Star nod.
When Hyde called him into the manager’s office to inform him of that selection, Means thought there was simply a tweak in the rotation order. Friday’s decision was not as surprising, with Means casually smiling in response.
“I’m assuming that he was kind of assuming that he was going to be the starter anyways,” Hyde said with a chuckle. “It’s kind of how we lined it up. I think hearing it from me, it was good to see his face light up, and I know as we get closer to that day, it’s gonna become really special. It’s always a good feeling to tell somebody good news.”
Means arrived in Sarasota, Florida, in February as the likely choice to start what was scheduled to be the Orioles’ first game before the coronavirus shutdown, March 26 at home against the Yankees. The nearly four months since the pandemic cut the exhibition season short haven’t changed that.
In looks between this spring and the week since the Orioles have returned to Baltimore to prepare for the 60-game campaign, Hyde said Means has flashed an improved breaking ball. Hyde partly credited Means’ offspeed pitches for his strong finish to 2019, when he had a 3.26 ERA over his final eight starts after pitching to a 8.34 ERA in his first five outings of the second half.
“I just think consistency with the breaking ball, a couple more weapons is gonna be really key for him to be able to make adjustments back to the league,” Hyde said.
Top prospect Rutschman among 6 added to player pool
Catcher Adley Rutschman, Baltimore’s first overall selection in the 2019 draft and the franchise’s top prospect, was among six players added to the Orioles’ player pool Friday.
Rutschman is the first of the now 53 members of Baltimore’s pool with no experience in the upper minors. It’s unlikely he appears for the major league team in 2020, but with the minor league season canceled and the Orioles set to open a secondary site in Bowie or Aberdeen in the near future, a spot in the pool was the organization’s only guaranteed route of continuing his development under its watch this season.
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Hyde said there was no specific plan in place for what Rutschman’s time at the major league site would hold.
“We want to see him here and take BP and catch some of our starters,” Hyde said. “The bottom line is just to get him playing again.”
Along with Rutschman, the Orioles added pitchers Keegan Akin, Michael Baumann and Isaac Mattson; outfielder Cedric Mullins; and fellow catcher Taylor Davis. Left-hander DL Hall, the Orioles’ 2017 first-round pick, posted on Instagram on Thursday that he was in Baltimore and “is definitely a candidate” to be added to the roster at some point, Hyde said.
Around the horn
Shortstop José Iglesias said the back issue that limited him for a couple of days this week is “much better.” … Left-hander Ty Blach, who was pulled from the Orioles’ intrasquad game Thursday while warming up for a second inning, had elbow soreness and is being reevaluated, Hyde said.