John Means' September return was a 2023 highlight for the Orioles

John Means city connect jersey

When lefty John Means pitched on the night of April 13, 2022, against Milwaukee, we headed into that game assuming it was just another night watching a pitcher emerging as one of the league’s best take the mound for the Orioles.

No one could have known then he would not take the mound in another major league game until Sept. 12, 2023 – that was 517 days later.

Means had one long road back.

He underwent Tommy John surgery in April of 2022 and the hope was he could be back by midseason in 2023. But last May he had a setback – a strained muscle in his upper back and it would be longer before he made it back.

But Means finally returned to pitch in a rehab game for Double-A Bowie on Aug. 10. He would throw in six rehab games between Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, going 1-1 with a 3.74 ERA in 21 2/3 innings. That led to Means' Sept. 12 return to the Orioles, and he made four starts down the stretch.

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The free agent market has been slow so far, but the pursuit of pitching is there

Dylan Cease black jersey

It has been rather quiet thus far in baseball free agency. Unless you are the St. Louis Cardinals, who have added three of the five starting pitchers signed to this point.

If you are just looking for a juicy rumor involving the Orioles, you may have a long wait. The team seems to work hard at keeping its business close to the vest and Mike Elias has often said essentially it is of no benefit to the team to put such information out there.

While rumors of signings and trades can be good for the game overall to keep fans talking about the sport 12 months a year, some already do that even without any good rumors.

But most teams don’t seem to want to generate rumors about which players they are talking to and pursuing. It could get their fanbase excited for a brief time, but signings, not rumors, truly excite fans.

Here are the few signings that have taken place thus far on free agent starting pitchers.

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It sure looks like a home run: The MLB rule changes

Cedric Mullins white jersey

We found out during the 2023 MLB regular season that we could watch a game lasting two and half hours again and it would not be completely rare. We found out we could survive a game played without defensive shifts. We found out we could be completely okay with scoring and base stealing on the rise.

And we found that the game was not dramatically changed in any way.

As any of us that had seen the pitch clock used in the minors already knew, fans would quickly adjust to the clock. After a few games, they would forget it was even there.

For the avalanche of criticism Rob Manfred gets as MLB commissioner – and he did not implement any of this on his own – these changes worked, and I contend they were very good for the game.

The average time of a big league game lasting nine inning was two hours and 40 minutes last season, down from 3:04 in 2022 and 3:10 in 2021. Yep, we gained a half hour. Beautiful. And needed.

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Rotation depth could push some real talent to O's bullpen in 2024

Tyler wells

There are a lot of questions to be answered for the Orioles between now and Opening Day 2024 on March 28 versus the Los Angeles Angels.

The makeup of the pitching staff and starting rotation is a big one.

If the Orioles add a starter who could slot into the top half of their rotation – something they have said they seek – it will be getting pretty crowded in that starting five.

There are already the quartet of Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, John Means and Dean Kremer who could easily take four of the five slots. A new addition could grab the last spot.

So where does that leave everybody else, including lefty DL Hall, once one of baseball’s top pitching prospects and right-hander Tyler Wells, a pitcher who had a 3.18 ERA as a starter at the 2023 All-Star break? And a pitcher who on the last day of the first-half led MLB in WHIP at 0.90.

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A few questions for the fans about their fandom throughout O's history

Brooks Robinson

Today in a unique edition and a variation on the usual "A Few Questions for O's Fans," I want to discuss not so much the present day Orioles but the Orioles of the past. For some of you, feel free to go back to the beginning of the Baltimore Orioles and their first year of 1954 if you choose.

Let's start there. For those that have that much history with the team. 

1) Not so much of a question but seeking out any fans that remember the very first year of the Orioles. What do you remember about the team moving to Baltimore and that first season of 1954?

2) Rank the Orioles' three World Series championships from most to least special. While any WS win is special, do you have a favorite? Use any reason that one WS could be your favorite, whether it was one you attended, you felt it was their most impressive win or any other reasons that are important to you.

3) Was the acquisition of Frank Robinson the best trade in O's history? Was there one that was better or more impactful?

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Appreciating Kyle Gibson's time as an Oriole

kyle gibson pitches grey

We learned a few days ago that right-hander Kyle Gibson would not be back with the Orioles for the 2024 season. He signed a one-year free agent deal with the St. Louis Cardinals for $12 million and the team holds a club option for the 2025 season.

For Gibson, this represents a homecoming of sorts. He lives near St. Louis and went to college at the University of Missouri. Reports said the Cardinals had been trying to add him for years. They’ve got him now but today we should take a moment to appreciate his numerous contributions to the Orioles last season.

He went 15-9 with a 4.73 ERA over 33 starts and the Orioles went 20-13 in those 33 games. Gibson tied for third in the AL in wins, trailing only Chris Bassitt and Zack Eflin, who had 16 each. He was one of eight pitchers in the majors with 15 or more wins and the first Oriole to do that since Chris Tillman won 16 in 2016.

The Orioles signed Gibson to a one-year deal for $10 million last Dec. 5 and he went on to tie for third in the league in wins, finish sixth in the AL throwing 192 innings, he tied for first in starts and tied for 10th in the AL with 17 quality starts.

Gibson became the first O’s pitcher in club history to start and win each of his three first appearances with the team. And he started a season 4-0 for the second time in his career, joining a 6-0 start with Texas in 2021. He became the fifth Oriole starting pitcher since 2004 to begin a year 4-0, joining John Means (4-0 in 2021), Bud Norris (4-0 in 2013), Wei-Yin Chen (4-0 in 2012), and Erik Bedard (4-0 in 2006).

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A few more surprises from the 2023 season

Aaron Hicks orange jersey

A few weeks back, I wrote about three players that surprised us in a good way with their play during the 2023 season. It was easy to note Ryan O'Hearn and Yennier Cano, both were huge surprises and so big for the 2023 Birds.

I added Kyle Bradish and not that we didn't think he could be a good pitcher. But maybe not that good. But he was and he wound up fourth in the Cy Young Award voting.

Here is that earlier blog here

Here are a few more surprises from the season. 

Outfielder Aaron Hicks: On the same day the Orioles put Cedric Mullins on the injured list for the first time - May 30 - they signed Aaron Hicks. A few days before that he had been designated for assignment by the Yankees and later released.

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O's fans can be thankful for a team that got to the top of the AL East

jackson holliday

Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers and fans of this blog today and I hope everyone has a great time with family and friends. Hope everything on your plate is hot and delicious.

But the topic here is always baseball and the Orioles and O’s fans have a lot to be thankful for this year.

How about a playoff team, 101 wins and an AL East championship. The 2023 season was an amazing ride, one that started with the Tampa Bay Rays lapping the field and winning all the time. But they struggled badly in July and the Orioles gained about six games or so in the standings pretty quickly to pass them.

The club took the Rays’ best shots and stayed on top. Even when Tampa Bay came to town in mid September and took the first two games of a four-game series. That moved the Rays into a first-place tie with the Orioles. But on a Saturday night at Camden Yards, with first-place riding, right-hander Grayson Rodriguez pitched eight scoreless in an 8-0 win. The next day the O’s won a wild one in 11 innings to clinch a playoff berth and touch off a wild celebration.

They went 9-5 down the stretch after the Rays tied them atop the division and they answered the Rays’ first two wins in that series in Baltimore with four straight wins – two over Tampa Bay and two at Houston. It was their greatest chance to crack under the pressure on the year and they did not. Four straight wins against playoff clubs.

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Hard name to spell, tough guy to hit

Danny Coulombe city connect jersey

When spring training 2023 began we didn’t know how big a factor he would be on the Orioles last season. Okay, that was because he wasn’t even on the team yet.

Later we struggled to pronounce his name and those of us that had to write it may have taken a while to spell it without looking it up. But lefty reliever Danny Coulombe (say it KOO-lohm) sure was big for the Baltimore bullpen. And without Félix Bautista, he figures to be very important to the 2024 ‘pen.

Coulombe is yet another Mike Elias acquisition added for a low price that produced big results. He was acquired via a trade on March 27 from Minnesota for cash considerations. Coulombe had been signed by the Twins to a minor league deal and had an opt-out. If the Twins were not ready to give him a roster spot, but another team was, he could use the opt out. That led to the cash considerations deal that got him to Baltimore.

Once he got there his impact was vast.

He went 5-3 with a 2.81 ERA. In 51 1/3 innings he posted a 1.110 WHIP with a 2.1 walk and 10.2 strikeout rate. He allowed a .231 batting average and .605 OPS and was good against both left and righty batters. His 5.7 walk percentage and 27.6 K percentage were both the second-best of his career.

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O's could potentially be a good trade partner for this pitcher

Dylan Cease white sox jersey

If the Orioles are going to add a pitcher that can work in the top half of their rotation and do it without spending a massive amount of dollars, then right-hander Dylan Cease may be a good target.

Cease, who turns 28 on Dec. 28, has two years of team control remaining before free agency and the Chicago White Sox have him on the market. A recent report said the Los Angeles Dodgers and White Sox had talks on Cease.

Cease has had an interesting three-year run of pitching. His ERA+ was 112 in 2021, soared to 180 as he finished second in the AL Cy Young voting in 2022 and was slightly below average at 97 last year.

After going 14-8 with a 2.20 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 2022, he was 7-9 with a 4.58 ERA last year. Over 177 innings he had a 1.418 WHIP, allowing 1.0 homers per nine with 4.0 walks and 10.9 strikeouts.

It has been pointed out that Cease had a better than average .260 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) in ’22 but that elevated to .330 last season when he played on a 101-loss team.

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Maybe MLB free agent floodgates will open after a key signing on Sunday

Aaron Nola white jersey

Former Orioles general manager Andy MacPhail used to say pitching is “expensive and fragile.” Two cautionary words about spending big for a hurler.

That didn’t keep the Philadelphia Phillies from keeping one of their homegrown pitchers on Sunday and the expensive part was definitely on display. Over the last three years, right-hander Aaron Nola is 32-31 with a 4.09 ERA. But the Phillies, who drafted him seventh overall out of LSU in 2014, retained him Sunday for $172 million over seven years. Reporters said the deal does not include any option years or opt-outs.

National reporters like Jon Heyman and Jeff Passan reported that Nola could have gotten more money elsewhere and also that the Braves were in hot pursuit. And having a division rival chasing your player obviously helped pushed the Phillies to get that deal to the finish line.

And while Nola was not at the very top of this free agent pitching class, he was ranked as the No. 5 free agent by MLBTradeRumors.com and projected to get a six-year deal for $150 million. He exceeded that projection.

While Nola’s ERA was 4.46 last season, teams are clearly digging deeper than ERA numbers here and liking what they see with this pitcher. Durability is a real Nola strength. In the last six full seasons – not counting the shortened 2020 season – he has averaged a robust 194 innings, three times topping 200.

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Revisiting a potential free agent pitcher pursuit and other offseason questions

Austin Hays running gray

While we wait for something to happen in baseball free agency (it's been pretty quiet thus far), today I take a quick look back at some recent stories written and discussed here.

If the Orioles, as stated, seek a pitcher they can place in the top half of their rotation, they could do worse than free agent right-hander Sonny Gray.

A recent New York post article projected he could get a three-year deal worth $65 million. 

Gray is coming off a fantastic year with the Twins, during which he went 8-8 with a 2.79 ERA and 1.147 WHIP in 184 innings over 32 starts. He ranked second in the American League and third in the majors in ERA, and was fourth in the AL in average against (.226), third in OPS (.607 behind Kyle Bradish at .605) and fifth in groundball rate.

Gray just turned 34, a number that worries some when thinking about signing him to a multi-year deal. 

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A blockbuster Ohtani deal will highlight this year's free agent class

Shohei Ohtani

Barring the stunner of all stunners, his free agency won’t impact the Orioles in any way. And he won’t even likely be linked to the club in any way. We’re talking about the $500 million man, Shohei Ohtani.

Even after a Tommy John surgery, his first procedure in the fall of 2018, he is about to get the biggest free agent contract in baseball history. If he doesn’t, that would be another stunner.

Ohtani should be able to pitch again, but that would be for the 2025 season. Whichever big dollar team signs him is getting someone that won’t be a two-way player next year.

If he returns to his top form on the mound later, a team could be getting a player that is the equivalent of signing both one of the best hitters and pitchers in the game.

During his major league career – his first year with the Angels was 2018 when he was voted American League Rookie of the Year – Ohtani ranks seventh in the majors in OPS+ and eighth in ERA+. An All-Star easily on the mound and at bat. The player he most compares to in history is Babe Ruth, who pitched just a few games after his age 24 season. Ohtani turned 29 in July.

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The A's are leaving Oakland and long-time Baltimore fans know how A's fans feel

Oakland Coliseum

There was some news around baseball on Thursday that had nothing to do with a free agent signing, a trade, or an award.

Major League Baseball's owners voted unanimously to approve the move of the Athletics from Oakland to Las Vegas.

The team currently known as the Oakland A's will someday play in a ballpark along the Las Vegas strip that has not even begun to be built yet. And apparently the financing for this park is not finalized. We don't even know when the A's will stop playing in Oakland. They have a lease at Oakland Coliseum for the 2024 season. Yep, the fans of this team in Oakland could attend games of a team they know that will one day abandon them. They probably feel abandoned already.

It's sure not a great situation. The A's could play for several years in various locations, even possibly in the Triple-A stadium where the Las Vegas Aviators now play, about 15 miles or so from Las Vegas.

The last time an MLB team relocated was in 2005 when the Montreal Expos moved to Washington, D.C. to become the Nationals. 

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Mike Elias said O's upward path will "involve the major league payroll"

Mike Elias

With one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball, the Orioles were still able to pull off a 101-win season that led them to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

There certainly seems to be room for that payroll to grow and get larger. How large no one knows and no one from the front office will tip their hand. Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias is the man that will need to manage that payroll with the knowledge that any big dollar mistakes could set back the team.

The margin for error is much less than for the big market, big spending teams.

No doubt some fans are skeptical that the O's could do some spending this winter and you won't get Elias to suggest that or promise that. But I still asked the question in our recent interview when I wondered what he could do to prove to fans that the club is willing to invest more dollars in the big league payroll?

“I think there is a point there I often neglect to mention – the ultimate goal here is wins and success and having a healthy organization. How much you are spending to do that – whether it is free agents or on infrastructure – it’s sort of secondary. To me, I care about that – I care about the wins and the organizational health, success and talent. But I think that if you’re a fan, you should see that we are on upward climb and an upward path and that has involved and will involve the major league payroll.

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For guiding O's from 108 losses to 101 wins, Brandon Hyde gets MOY award

Brandon Hyde

When asked about the attributes of Brandon Hyde as Orioles manager on MLB Network Tuesday morning and how he has had such an impact on the roster, O’s bench coach Fredi Gonzalez had an interesting answer.

“Well, he’s been given the opportunity to grow with the team,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in our sport.”

He noted how Hyde was that rare skipper to start with a team at the beginning of a rebuild and still be around when they were ready to win and when they did win. And in this case, be a big reason that they won.

After seeing his Orioles win 52 games in 2021, 83 in 2022 and 101 and an AL East title in 2023, Hyde was named last night as the American League Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. 

Hyde and Earl Weaver are the only O’s skippers to manage 100-win teams in Baltimore. And Hyde joins Frank Robinson (1989), Davey Johnson (1997) and Buck Showalter (2014) as BBWAA Managers of the Year. The award was first handed out in 1983.

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When Gunnar Henderson got less selective, more aggressive, his season took off

Gunnar Henderson smiling

The beginnings of Gunnar Henderson truly starting to state his case to be the 2023 American League Rookie of the Year may have their origin around mid May to early June of the season.

The preseason favorite to win ROY, Henderson was batting just .170 with a .651 OPS on May 12 amid some of the fanbase wondering if a trip back to the minors was needed. It was not.

Around that time Henderson decided to become less selective and more aggressive at the plate. He stopped waiting for the perfect pitch and realized there are many pitches he could drive. If he started to become more aggressive early in counts, he could do that and keep pitchers from getting ahead of him in counts and getting to two-strike counts where they could more easily put him away.

“Yeah, there are times when I’ve been too passive,” Henderson told me during an early June interview. “Just, I’ve had times recently where I’ve been starting to swing earlier in counts if it’s in the area that I want to go and do damage with. That has helped me and if you get contact earlier in the counts, you also limit strikeouts. A big thing has been learning how to be aggressive, but not too aggressive.”

Let’s not underrate how savvy and smart this kid is beyond all the physical tools that he displays on offense, defense and the bases.

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A big decision for the Orioles: When will Jackson Holliday make the bigs?

Jackson Holliday futures jersey

One very important and also very interesting question facing the Orioles – and no doubt for fans a very exciting question – is when will the club bring baseball’s No. 1 ranked prospect, infielder Jackson Holliday, to the big leagues?

Will he have a real shot to make the Orioles out of spring training, or will he need more Triple-A time than the 18 regular-season games and four playoff games he played in for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides?

Holliday hit .267 with a .796 OPS for Norfolk to cap a remarkable year where he played at four levels and overall hit .323/.442/.499/.941 with 30 doubles, nine triples, 12 homers, 24 steals, 154 hits, 101 walks, 113 runs and 75 RBIs.

“Yeah, I’ve got no complaints," Holliday said via a Zoom call in late September on the day he was named the Orioles' Minor League Player of the Year, winning the Brooks Robinson Award. He had earlier been named Baseball America’s Player of the Year for the entire minor leagues.

"This year has gone about as well as I could possibly imagine. My goal was Double-A, and to make it to Triple-A is quite something. It’s been quite a year," said Holliday and that might be understating it.

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A good week for Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson

GettyImages-1703090464

It is bound to happen a few more times, maybe many, many more times throughout their baseball careers. On the same night this past week, twice both Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson were honored.

On Wednesday they were two of six Orioles nominated for the all MLB team, which will be announced Dec. 16 on MLB Network. The team will be selected by a fan and media vote, each counting 50 percent. On Thursday night, Rutschman and Henderson both won Silver Slugger Awards. The first set of O’s teammates to take this honor since three O’s won Silver Sluggers (Chris Davis, Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy) in 2013.

Adley and Gunnar. Gunnar and Adley.

Linked since their draft day in 2019 when they became the first two MLB Draft selections Mike Elias made as O’s executive vice president and general manager.

Rutschman was the No. 1 overall pick in that draft with enormous expectations from the start. Henderson was the No. 42 pick in the draft, compared by some due to his position, size and style of play to Corey Seager. There were hopes for him but many fewer expectations with a pick at 42.

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O's Mike Elias on groundwork laid at GM meetings for what could be swift-moving market

elias cage

Back on the East Coast after a few days at the General Manager meetings in Arizona, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias is ready to begin the work on making additions to his pitching staff, both in the rotation and bullpen.

During a phone interview Friday with MASNSports.com, Elias made it clear that a late-inning reliever is at or near the top of his wish list. Right-hander Felix Bautista, who posted a 1.48 ERA and 33 saves with a 16.2 K rate, is expected to miss the entire 2024 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery Oct. 9.

It leaves a big hole in the back end of the Baltimore bullpen.

“It is a top priority,” said Elias. “I’m characterizing it as a back-end reliever. I think if that guy has closer experience, that’s great. It would be nice. I am worried about Bautista’s absence and I don’t believe we felt that fully in September of 2023. We are going to try like hell to bring in some help from the outside for the back of our bullpen.”

And that help could come via free agency or a trade.

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