Sampling of questions as Orioles' first spring training workout approaches

Ed Smith Stadium

SARASOTA, Fla. – Temperatures at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota are expected to reach the 70s again today. Sunscreen is readily available in the baseball operations building and the athletic trainers’ carts during workouts, and also in the dugout once exhibition games begin.

Can’t block out the excitement that comes with the first official day of pitchers and catchers spreading out on the back fields and in the bullpen area.

Optimism also is running high for a club that posted the best record in the American League last year. It’s time to defend the division title.

Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias will meet the press later this morning, which presents another opportunity for a health check.

Not Elias’, since we’re assuming that he’s fine.

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A few more facts and O's opinions

John Means throws white

Time today for a few more facts and opinions about the 2023 Orioles and the Birds who will take the field in 2024.

Fact: The Orioles’ team ERA for last season was 3.89 which ranked fifth-best in the American League and seventh-best in the majors. In the second half, their team ERA of 3.58 ranked first in the AL and third in the majors.

Opinion: Is the O’s pitching really that good? Well it was last season and they were rolling in the second half. Several pitchers made improvements as the year went on. The back-end of the bullpen will be interesting to watch as Craig Kimbrel tries to replace Felix Bautista.

O’s executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said this in early November, before the Kimbrel signing: “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.”

Well they got some help and now we see how that works out and if the bullpen, which appears a strength with some depth on paper, plays out that way once the games begin.

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The '24 Birds are no doubt counting on another big year from Yennier Cano

Yennier Cano white jersey

With the Orioles set to play the entire 2024 season without closer Félix Bautista, which pitchers replace him in the ninth inning and how well they do next year will have a lot to say about the O’s team performance for the year.

Obviously, we don’t know yet the makeup of the 2024 bullpen and if the team will look to acquire via trade or free agency someone that could pitch the ninth. But one pitcher that will be in that late-inning mix is right-hander Yennier Cano, mentioned in this space yesterday as a player that surprised us in the 2023 season.

He sure did. He was not even on the Opening Day roster and in the 2022 season, between the Twins and Orioles in brief action, he had posted an 11.50 ERA and 2.333 WHIP. Then that same guy began his 2023 O’s season with 17 straight scoreless outings. That is about as surprising as it can get.

After Cano became more hittable in the second half – somewhat expected when you are almost unhittable – he no doubt has some doubters entering the winter.

But let’s look at some numbers first.

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More of this, that and the other

Ryan Mountcastle

HOUSTON – Had the Orioles discovered a way to more accurately predict Ryan Mountcastle’s recovery from an injury to his left shoulder, they wouldn’t have waited until yesterday to remove him from the active roster. The data would have driven them.

Mountcastle kept making incremental gains in his recovery. Manager Brandon Hyde told the media on multiple occasions that the first baseman was “a little better” and might be available off the bench, at least in the field.

A few attempts to hit in the cage demolished the optimism that was building.

The description of left shoulder soreness was replaced by a more specific term - AC joint inflammation. Located at the tip of the shoulder where the scapula and clavicle come together.

Most injuries in this area start to improve within a week but can take much longer for a full recovery depending on the severity. The Orioles are hoping that Mountcastle is ready when eligible to come back.

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Pregame Orioles notes on Means, Bautista, Mountcastle, Baumann, offensive slump and more

Pregame Orioles notes on Means, Bautista, Mountcastle, Baumann, offensive slump and more

John Means is bouncing back in fine fashion after making his first start Tuesday since undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery in April 2022.

“Everything’s felt great,” he said today. “It’s felt better than it has in a while, so I’m really pleased with everything that’s going on and how I’m feeling.”

Means threw a bullpen session on Thursday, again with the desired results.

“Felt good, everything feels normal,” he said.

Staying with a six-man rotation puts Means on the mound again Monday night in Houston, where he could be pitted against veteran Justin Verlander. The teams haven't listed their starters for the three-game series.

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Even without Bautista, O's look to 'pen in close games with Tampa Bay

Danny Coulombe

In the first nine games this year between the Orioles and Tampa Bay, the Orioles went 6-3 and they were 6-0 in games decided by two runs or less. 

But in the series opener last night in Baltimore, Tampa Bay won a close one by 4-3 on Luke Raley's tiebreaking homer in the seventh. The Rays bullpen put up four perfect innings to protect that lead. The Rays 'pen has thrown 34 straight innings without allowing an earned run.

Tonight, the Orioles hope their 'pen gets a chance to protect a late lead.

Then we will find out - Can the Orioles win close games against Tampa Bay without closer Félix Bautista?

It is really a question they are going to have answer the rest of the way and a big question for October playoff baseball.

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Elias explains Orioles' plans for Bautista following elbow injury

Bautista black

The Orioles aren’t ready to shut the door on Félix Bautista’s season. They don’t feel the urgency to make a declaration with 20 games remaining before the playoffs.

Bautista isn’t in their bullpen, but time is on their side.

Executive Vice President/General Manager Mike Elias confirmed today in a media session that Bautista has a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. An MRI revealed the damage, which is termed “acute-on-chronic.” A sudden injury that also results from use over a period of time.

Surgery to replace the ligament, or a Tommy John procedure, remains a possibility down the road, but the Orioles aren’t traveling it this month.

“The question is when and how to deal with that,” Elias said.

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Because You Asked - Expend4bles

John Means

Because my mailbag hates dry heat and cross-country flights, I’m answering more questions today from home and waiting to join the Orioles in Boston.

I go where it goes.

You understand how this works after 15 years. How it’s a sequel to the beloved 2008 original.

You want heavy editing? Go to a movie. I don’t tamper here. We’re crazy with clarity, sinful with style, bold with brevity, loony with length, ga-ga over grammar.

Also, my mailbag expands like a September roster and yours splits like the back of Ye’s jacket.

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Posing three Orioles questions on the final day of August

Jack Flaherty

The Orioles are off today, flying into Arizona after yesterday’s loss to spend more time enjoying the dry heat. Think of it as a pizza oven except there’s no melted mozzarella.

Their roster expands by a pitcher and a position player on Friday. They’d do it anyway, but teams don’t have the option of staying at 26.

The dog days of August are gone. We’ve moved onto September baseball as a contender, and it’s the home stretch no matter where the schedule takes you.

“This is definitely an exciting time right now for our club,” manager Brandon Hyde said yesterday. “Going back to the West Coast. I feel like we were just there. It’s an important road trip, every game matters right now, every game’s important. And it’s a lot of fun playing in games that matter.”

Can’t flip the pages of the calendar without finding more questions, which isn’t as enjoyable.

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Coulombe's strong season continues as 'pen tries to overcome Bautista's injury

Coulombe and McCann celebrate

As they continue to navigate life in the Orioles bullpen for now without closer Félix Bautista, the Orioles relievers are going to do their best to overcome this loss. But they know this pitcher can’t be easily replaced – if at all.

“I think it’s going to give some guys an opportunity to step up,” said bullpen lefty Danny Coulombe in an interview last night on the Orioles Radio Network. “Obviously you cannot replace him, but we are going to have to step up and move on. We’re going to have to.

“Not only is Bautista a great pitcher, but a great guy too. We love him in the clubhouse. Hard to lose a guy with the year he was having. He is my vote for Cy Young – at least in the top five.”

But maybe the bullpen is better positioned now to withstand this injury than it would have been earlier in the season. Coulombe has returned from the injured list. DL Hall has arrived. Yennier Cano recently threw 11 straight scoreless appearances. Jacob Webb has an ERA of 1.86 as an Oriole. Cionel Pérez has not allowed an earned run his last 12 outings. Shintaro Fujinami has thrown four straight scoreless games.

“Yeah, absolutely,” said Coulombe of the ‘pen’s recent performance. “We’re going to do the best we can and just take it pitch-by-pitch and day-by-day and hopefully keep having success.”

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Increased slider usage has helped Yennier Cano get back locked in for the O's

Yennier Cano

He has been so good for the Orioles bullpen this year, but there was a stretch a few weeks back when right-hander Yennier Cano was more hittable.

Heading into a series in late July with the New York Yankees, Cano went through a 10-game stretch where his ERA was 5.00 and opponents were batting .368 with an OPS of 1.000 against him.

It was then that Cano decided to tweak a pitch mix that mostly has been about two pitches – a two-seam sinking fastball and changeup – and make it now three.

“Think the biggest difference has been incorporating my slider,” he said yesterday with the help of O’s interpreter Brandon Quinones, talking about his recent strong pitching. “When they were hitting me better, I was going through some adjustments to incorporate my slider and then figured some of those things out. Now that I have a much better feel for it and have the slider more down pat, it’s more difficult for the hitters to get a read on me now that that pitch is in the repertoire.”

For the year, Cano is 1-2 with a 1.62 ERA and 0.984 WHIP in 57 games and 61 innings. 

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Veteran starters back Bautista for Cy Young Award

Felix Bautista

Cole Irvin and Kyle Gibson see nothing wrong with it. Never to be accused of reliever bias in Cy Young Award voting.

Give it to the best pitcher, whatever role he fills. Whether he’s on the mound to start the first inning or the ninth.

Orioles closer Félix Bautista is aware of the chatter surrounding his candidacy. Irvin dresses only a few lockers away and gladly will lead the conversation.

“The fact that he’s in the discussion just points to how good he is,” Irvin said. “It’s impressive what he’s done this season. I mean, he’s averaging nearly two strikeouts an inning, and this is the best of the best in this league. So, for him to be doing that speaks to the quality of pitcher he is, and he’s been this season, and he’s most certainly deserving to be nominated, or even a candidate for the Cy Young.”

Bautista warmed and then sat last night, leaving him at 32 saves, a 1.52 ERA and 0.944 WHIP in 54 games, and 16.5 strikeouts per nine innings. He retired the side in order in the ninth the previous game, only the fourth time he hadn’t recorded a strikeout.

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Tossing out a few Orioles surprises after 113 games

Ryan O'Hearn

The Orioles will try to get back to 28 games above .500 tonight, perhaps stretching their lead to three over the second-place Rays, who gained a little ground last night.

Trying to contend again and grab a wild card berth has been replaced by winning the division and posting the best record to seize home field advantage.

Could make a fascinating book.

An entire chapter, maybe more, could be devoted to what many of us didn’t see coming.

For instance:

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Because You Asked - Folie á Deux

Jackson Holliday futures game

The All-Star break didn’t shatter the Orioles’ momentum toward their first playoff berth in seven years.

They are 16-7 in the second half. Their lead over the Rays grew to three games. Their 70 wins matched the Braves’ total yesterday.

Any drama left in the season appears to involve possible promotions, fitting pitchers on the roster who are returning from the injured list, and whether the Orioles win the division and receive a first-round bye in the playoffs.

That last one is a biggie.

If the season ended today, the Orioles would kick back and wait for the winner of the Rays-Astros wild card series. The Rangers would play the Twins or Blue Jays.

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Sunday's shutout was latest example of Orioles' improved pitching

Shintaro Fujinami white jersey

Yes, there are concerns about season innings limits for several pitchers and yes there have been concerns about the O’s middle relief and getting rest for their late game bullpen flamethrowers.

But while those concerns are still out there and valid, the Orioles keep winning and their pitching staff seems to have hit a higher gear recently.

In taking two of three against the New York Yankees last weekend, the Orioles gave up three runs in their two wins. In taking three of four at Toronto, they allowed 10 runs in the series. In sweeping three from the New York Mets, they allowed six runs in the series and produced the season’s sixth shutout with Sunday’s four-hitter.

The O’s team ERA is 4.04 to rank eighth in the American League. That is respectable but they are trending up with their pitching as their team ERA is going down. The current mark is the lowest O’s team ERA since May 25.

In going 7-1 the last eight games, the team ERA is 2.15. In going 21-7 the last 28 games, their ERA is 3.23.

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Gibson on trade deadline: "If we don't make a massive splash, I think this team is really good"

Kyle Gibson

TORONTO - After he threw yet another quality start for the Orioles last night - as they beat Toronto in the series opener - right-hander Kyle Gibson discussed today's trade deadline.

He told reporters if nothing big happens today, he is fine with it. He loves the current group in the Orioles' clubhouse and sees enough talent there right now to keep winning.

“In 2018 we (the Twins) traded away eight players at the deadline," he said. "Never seen that many traded away. And at the time, we might have been three games out of the wild card. There are teams that absolutely need to play well around the deadline, but I don’t think this is one of those teams. I think we just want to play well to keep going in the right direction.”

He said it's important that players have been able to block out any deadline distractions this year.

“Very important. It’s easy to look around and see moves and get anxious, get antsy. Wait to see where the dominoes will fall for us. Do we have needs? Sure. Are there players that could make our team better? Sure. But I think we have a really darn good team and if we don’t make this massive splash, I think this team is really good. I think the Fuji trade (adding Shintaro Fujinami) is really big for us. The flexibility he adds in the bullpen is huge.

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Good start to the weekend: O's beat Twins 3-1 in 10 innings (updated)

Cedric Mullins home run robbery

MINNEAPOLIS – Cole Irvin was not “swirvin” this time. Irvin, who uses that nickname in his Twitter handle, was very much in balance and control tonight and he was setting down the Minnesota Twins with regularity.

His season ERA was 6.32 at game time, but his ERA since his latest return to the Orioles roster June 10 was 3.44 in five games. He gave up two runs in eight innings his last two starts, one rain interrupted. He had shown signs he was getting his act together.

Tonight, in front of 32,724 fans at Target Field in the opener of this three-game series, we saw more evidence.  

Irvin left with a lead but could not get a win tonight.

But the Orioles did.

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