The news that the Orioles’ best starting pitcher, John Means, will have Tommy John surgery wasn’t surprising, but it was still disturbing. The Orioles weren’t expected to be much improved in 2022, but Means’ absence makes a move up even less likely.
Recoveries from Tommy John — elbow surgery to repair a damaged ulnar collateral ligament — aren’t assured, and neither is a timetable for Means’ return in 2023. Curiously, news of Means’ surgery came from the left-hander’s Twitter account rather than from the Orioles.
A year from now, Means, who turns 29 on Sunday, will have his return discussed and debated. By then, the Orioles could have a rotation of Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, Kyle Bradish and the rapidly improving Bruce Zimmermann, and perhaps others.
For now, the possible substitutes for Means aren’t exciting.
Zimmermann, who has a 1.20 ERA through his first three starts, has been solid. Jordan Lyles, who was expected to be the innings eater after Means in the rotation, has a 3.52 ERA in his first three starts.
The other spots in the rotation are less certain. Spenser Watkins threw five innings, allowing two runs on three hits, in the Orioles’ 5-4 win over the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday night. Ryan Mountcastle drove in three runs, including the go-ahead run in the seventh. It was the Orioles’ second straight win over Los Angeles; they won, 5-3, behind Zimmermann on Friday night. They’re 6-9.
Watkins has a 2.77 ERA in three starts and hasn’t gone more than five innings in any of them. He was removed after 76 pitches.
Mike Trout hit two home runs against Watkins.
Chris Ellis, who will start on Sunday, pitched, 4 1/3 scoreless innings in his first major league start of the season after six starts last year. He threw 62 pitches against Oakland last Tuesday, and perhaps manager Brandon Hyde will extend him further in his second start.
Last year, Ellis had two starts of five innings, allowing one hit without a run against the New York Yankees and a one-run, five hit showing against Toronto. However, he walked three against the Yankees and four in the start against the Blue Jays,throwing 92 and 91 pitches.
In the start that followed, also against New York, Ellis threw 84 pitches in 4 2/3 innings, giving up two runs on three hits, but walked four. His 2.49 ERA in his Oriole starts was impressive, but the team still removed him from the 40-man roster last November and he didn’t re-sign until March 16th, when spring training was under way.
One of the best things about Means was his ability to work deep into his starts. In 2021, Means threw six or more innings in 14 of his 26 starts, and pitched fewer than five innings in just five starts. While Lyles is durable, his lifetime ERA is 5.02, more than a run more than Means’ 3.81.
The Orioles had hoped to nurse converted reliever Tyler Wells, who had Tommy John surgery in 2019, through the season on limited innings, but that may be harder if Ellis and Watkins, who had two starts of six innings last season, remain in the rotation.
Hyde has two potential starters in his bullpen, Keegan Akin and Mike Baumann, but they’re needed in case of short starts after a four-week spring training. However, Hyde might be tempted to try Akin and Baumann if the other starters struggle.
Means’ absence will heighten fans’ eagerness for the Orioles to promote Bradish, 25, and Rodriguez, 22, from Triple-A Norfolk.
Bradish threw six innings on Friday night and has a 2-0 record and 1.20 ERA. He has allowed just eight hits in 15 innings. Last season, Bradish threw 100 1/3 combined innings at Norfolk and Double-A Bowie, and the Orioles will be conservative with his innings.
Rodriguez threw 103 innings last year at Bowie and High-A Aberdeen and has been terrific for the Tides this season, allowing just five hits in 14 1/3 innings. He’s 2-0 with a 1.26 ERA. The Orioles will be careful with Rodriguez, too.
When they’re promoted, which may not be too far off, general manager Mike Elias wants to make sure they can complete the season and not run out of innings in mid-August.
Hall remains in Sarasota after a season in which an elbow injury limited him to just 31 2/3 innings at Bowie. Don’t expect Hall to be promoted to the Orioles any time soon.
Another prospect, right-hander Kyle Brnovich, who was one four pitchers, including Bradish, who came from the Los Angeles Angels for starter Dylan Bundy in December 2019, suffered a right elbow sprain at Norfolk. That’s the same injury that the Orioles reported Means had when he was transferred from the 10-day to 60-day injured list.
Alexander Wells, who’s on the taxi squad for the current road trip, could get some starts. So could Zac Lowther, although he’s off to a bad start after allowing five earned runs in 1 1/3 innings on Saturday night at Norfolk. Both are on the 40-man roster.
Matt Harvey, who was signed to a minor league contract on April 8th, could return but his legal status is still in question. There was speculation that Harvey would be suspended after he testified he supplied opioids to the his late Angels teammate, Tyler Skaggs, in the Eric Kay trial in February. There’s been no announcement.
The Orioles’ pitching staff has been successful in the first two weeks of the season, but after May 1st, they’ll lose two of the 15 pitchers on the staff when roster size drops from 28 to 26 and the number of pitchers is limited to 13.
Minor league update: Lowther gave up seven runs, five earned, on six hits in just 1 1/3 innings in Norfolk’s 7-5 loss to Durham. Lowther (0-2) has an 11.05 ERA.
Kevin Smith, who was removed from the 40-man roster on April 15th, pitched four scoreless innings, allowing two hits. Third baseman Tyler Nevin had his second straight three-hit game and lifted his average to .353. Catcher Brett Cumberland hit his third home run, a two-run shot. Cadyn Grenier hit his first.
In a rehab start for the Bulls, Ryan Yarbrough was removed after six batters. He allowed two runs, a hit and walked four, retiring only one.
Antonio Velez (0-1), who was obtained from Miami in the trade for relief pitchers Tanner Scott and Cole Sulser, allowed five runs on nine hits as Double-A Bowie lost to Akron, 8-6. Catcher Cody Roberts hit a two-run homer, his first. He drove in three. Shortstop Gunnar Henderson homered for the second straight game. Leftfielder Dylan Harris hit his second home run.
Carlos Tavera allowed five runs in three innings as High-A Aberdeen lost to Greensboro, 8-7 ,in 10 innings. Second baseman Connor Norby homered twice and drove in three. He has four home runs this season. Shortstop César Prieto hit a two-run homer, his sixth, and rightfielder John Rhodes hit his first.
Shortstop Isaac De Leon and catcher Michael Mantecon each had two hits as Low-A Delmarva lost to Myrtle Beach, 5-1.