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Orioles’ pitching depth comes into focus with John Means still a question for Opening Day

John Means missing out on Friday’s Opening Day start for the Orioles because of arm soreness, which manager Brandon Hyde said the team would have to decide one way or another by Monday, would be an unfortunate way for this unprecedented season to begin.

It shouldn’t, however, be the kind of crisis it was when Opening Day plans were scuttled by an injury to Alex Cobb a few days before the 2019 season began.

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Then, the Orioles needed to shift pitchers around and use opener Nate Karns in the second game of the season. They only had three true starters for the first week of the season, and no real alternatives in reserve.

Now, the Orioles at least have a little notice. Hyde said the arm fatigue that kept Means from starting Sunday’s exhibition at the Philadelphia Phillies was “a lot better” Sunday, and that the team continues to hope Means can make that start.

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He also said he would prefer not to have a possible replacement pitcher on short rest the way Andrew Cashner did for him in 2019, which means the “contingency plans” the team mentioned would probably involve further changing their plans for the rest of this week’s exhibition games.

Cobb is scheduled to start Monday at Camden Yards against the Washington Nationals, and the plan that pitching coach Doug Brocail revealed last week regarding Wade LeBlanc starting the third exhibition game was flipped when Hyde said LeBlanc would pitch a simulated game at Camden Yards on Tuesday to allow right-hander Kohl Stewart to start the road game against the Nationals that night.

That plan wouldn’t be able to stand if Means can’t take the ball Friday at Fenway Park, especially if Hyde and Brocail want to be cautious about putting a pitcher’s health at risk by having him pitch on short rest after such a short ramp-up period.

If the Orioles want to hold out hope on Means and let Cobb and LeBlanc (and possibly Stewart) stay on schedule, they could just have Asher Wojciechowski or Tommy Milone deputize on what would be extra rest, considering neither has a looming assignment in an exhibition game.

Absent that, the Orioles could simply be forced to execute what appears to be their plan to back up starting pitchers with a full stable of stretched-out pitchers at their Bowie camp or on the three-man taxi squad once the season begins.

That’s where Eshelman, who pitched 4⅔ shutout innings Sunday against Philadelphia, comes in.

“There’s a few guys in play if John can’t go, so the way Tom threw the ball tonight — that’s a major league lineup,” Hyde said after the 5-1 win. “He’s facing seven All-Stars the first seven hitters in that lineup.”

A team with six major league starters on its roster shouldn’t have to tap a non-roster option on Opening Day, but it seems like those options — and not the team’s prospects who are on the 40-man roster — are going to be the first in line as rotation depth.

Eshelman was one of a handful of options from the beginning of this summer camp, though numbers have dwindled. Left-hander Ty Blach hurt his elbow and recently had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. Right-hander Chandler Shepherd was sent to the Bowie camp.

Cesar Valdez, a 35-year-old minor league free agent, pitched four innings in his last intrasquad appearance.

Provided Eshelman isn’t needed in the Opening Day roster equation, he, Shepherd and Valdez are likely going to get first crack at being ready to start at a moment’s notice for the Orioles. Hyde said having a fallback starting option on the team’s three-man traveling taxi squad on the road was going to be a priority, given the possibility that a positive COVID-19 test could throw pitching plans into flux at a moment’s notice.

At least early in the summer, however, don’t expect pitching prospects at Bowie like Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin — both of whom are on the 40-man roster — or right-hander Michael Baumann to be immediate options.

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Director of player development Matt Blood indicated Sunday that some of the options that were currently at the main Orioles camp had a better chance of getting the first shots at major league opportunities than the ones at the Bowie game.

“I would say these guys are working towards that opportunity,” Blood said. “You all have seen it, you’ve covered baseball a long time. A lot of different things can happen and the right situation on the right day with the right person. I would say these guys are preparing as if they may get the call. That’s the right way to go about it.”

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