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For Orioles, caution with John Means now means having him at ‘the top of a playoff rotation’ in the near future

It’s been over a week since John Means last stepped onto the mound for the Orioles, and considering the way they’ve played since his May 5 no-hitter and the six shutout innings he delivered May 11 against the Mets in New York, that might feel like far too long.

For the Orioles, however, it’s worth it.

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Means’ emergence as one of the best pitchers in baseball has put an even greater emphasis on shepherding him through a healthy 2021 season, one that features an unprecedented workload spike after a shortened 2020. What awaits is an era of Orioles baseball in which executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias envisions Means taking the ball to start a postseason series — before the team has any motivation to possibly capitalize on his value in a trade.

“We feel like this team is coming together in a good way,” Elias said. “We’ve got a lot of talent in the minor leagues, and not just in the minor leagues but in the upper minors. We’re in a phase in this situation where things can pop quickly. Both Trey [Mancini] and John are a big part of that and they’re in positions to be leaders in this club when that happens.

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“Means in particular, we’re talking about three more seasons after this season before he reaches free agency. He’s pitching like a No. 1 starter. We believe him to be a No. 1 starter. That’s hard to find, that’s hard to draft, that’s hard to develop. That’s a really big development for us, to have bred a guy like him internally. We’re just trying to keep him on that track and keep him healthy, and hopefully, we see him at the top of a playoff rotation for us in the near future.”

Everything Means has done in the first quarter of the season justifies such praise. His 1.21 ERA and 0.712 WHIP are the best in the American League, he’s striking out over a batter per inning for the first time in his career, and he’s been particularly adept at limiting damage in the rare occasions when runners do reach base.

All that is worth wanting to keep around into the future as he continues to further improve, but those long-term goals come with short-term sacrifices for the Orioles. Their shuffling of Means’ schedule, as well as their shuttling of Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann down to the minors for rest and reset purposes, has left the team’s pitching staff short on starting pitchers on several occasions this year.

When manager Brandon Hyde was asked about the team’s perhaps excessive caution with Means this year, he noted that more and more pitchers at the top of the league are being handled with care. Means is one of 25 pitchers who is qualified for the ERA title and has an ERA below three this season, and that list includes some of the game’s best.

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Factoring in the seven days of rest Means is coming off Wednesday, just eight of those pitchers will average more rest between starts than Means’ 4.9 days. Entering Wednesday’s start, though, Means has some of the shortest rest of the bunch with 4.6 days’ rest.

Of that group, only Los Angles Dodgers star Trevor Bauer has more starts on traditional four-days’ rest (five) than Means. The Orioles will be making Means the eighth pitcher of that group to have at least six days’ rest twice. (All stats via Baseball-Reference.com’s Stathead platform.)

There are also 22 pitchers who are qualified for the ERA title between the ages of 27 and 29, with some overlap, including the 28-year-old Means. Most of the same observations apply to Means’ place in this group. Before his week off, he was in the bottom third of that group in terms of average rest. After Wednesday’s start, he’ll be among the best rested.

This group, however, has far fewer starts on regular rest, which puts Means’ four such starts on the high side.

It’s fair to assume, as Hyde said, that teams will take such precautions with their prized pitchers, no matter the age. Means already pitched 52 innings in the first quarter of the season, but that’s a 200-inning pace over the course of a full season. Means threw 155 in his first full major league season in 2019, and was between 138 and 157 ⅔ in his full minor league seasons.

Pushing Means beyond that after such a stop-and-start 2020 might not be advised — whether the Orioles want him to take the ball in Game 1 of a playoff series in a couple years, or market him to other teams as a frontline starting pitcher who, even with arbitration raises, will be a bargain.

If it’s the former, Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall pushing up, into, and through the high minors this summer and preparing to join the horde of rookie pitchers trying to make the grade on the current roster will mean the kind of rotation that Elias envisions Means topping will be a good one.

If it’s the latter, it would be a shame to have him join the growing list of those who got away when, after all these years, the Orioles finally seem to have developed their frontline starter.

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