John Means making progress but not likely to pitch in any spring games

John Means throws white

SARASOTA, Fla. – The timetable for lefty John Means has not changed. He began spring training a month behind the other pitchers after he had an extended winter rest period. This followed his missing the American League Division Series with elbow soreness.

But Means is continuing to throw in Florida and his next step, he said today, will be live bullpen sessions coming in the next week or two.

But he is not likely to pitch in any spring training games, which run through March 24. And he is still expected to begin the regular season on the injured list. 

“Means, maybe, probably not,” manager Brandon Hyde said this morning when asked specifically whether Means will pitch before the spring games end.

Said Means, who went 1-2 with a 2.66 ERA in four starts last September: “I’m going to be doing some live BPs here coming up. We’ll see where it goes from there. We’re getting there.”

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Orioles and Yankees lineups for game at Ed Smith Stadium

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SARASOTA, Fla. – The Orioles currently hold the best record for the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues combined at 7-1 and have won four in a row.

They try to keep a streak alive today when they host the New York Yankees at 1:05 p.m. at Ed Smith Stadium. The game will be televised live on MASN.

This is the first of just two spring games between these American League East rivals, a year after the Orioles won 101 games and the Yankees won 82.

Center fielder Cedric Mullins, who is 2-for-7 this spring, will lead off, followed by catcher Adley Rutschman and Ryan Mountcastle, who returns to the field at first base after he served as DH Friday in North Port.

Coby Mayo, who is batting .417 (5-for-12) is starting at third base and batting sixth.

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This week we got a glimpse of what "Spring Breakout" could look like

Jackson Holliday

SARASOTA, Fla. - When Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Paul Skenes, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2023 MLB Draft, faced the Orioles' Jackson Holliday, the No. 1 overall pick in 2022, on Thursday in Sarasota, it was a nice appetizer for a game coming later this month. 

Skenes, the LSU product, retired Holliday on the second pitch of the at-bat. He touched 102 mph during his scoreless inning versus the Orioles on Thursday. He threw 100 against Holliday.

On March 14 in Bradenton, the top O’s prospects will play the top Pirates prospects as part of a new series of games this year called “Spring Breakout.” Each club will have at least one game where it can send out its top prospects to play those from another club. That night we could see Skenes-Holliday part two.

The O’s-Pirates game that night will be the second part of a doubleheader at Bradenton’s LECOM Park that will begin with the regular Grapefruit League game between the O's and Pirates at 3:05 p.m. The prospects-only game will follow at 7:05 p.m., and that game will be televised live on MLB Network.

The roster reveal will be a live TV event, too, and that is happening March 7 at 11 a.m. on MLB Network.

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How Corbin Burnes stacks up with other MLB hurlers since the 2020 season

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When 29-year-old right-hander Corbin Burnes takes the mound today to start the first spring training game for his new team, the Orioles will get a look at their new ace in action for the first time in the 2024 season.

They hope he is the quality workhorse and clear No. 1 pitcher that the Milwaukee Brewers saw since his rookie season of 2018. He moved into a big league rotation for good in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Burnes is no doubt worthy of being called an ace, and you can make a case that he is the best pitcher in baseball since that 2020 season.

In 2020, he went 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA and was sixth in the National League Cy Young voting. The next season he won the NL Cy Young Award, going 11-5 with a 2.43 ERA. In 2022 he was 12-8 with a 2.94 ERA and was seventh in the Cy Young vote, and last season he was 10-8 with a 3.39 ERA, finishing eighth for the top pitching award.

Between them, Max Scherzer, Shane Bieber and Gerrit Cole have five Cy Young awards (three by Scherzer himself), but they all trail Burnes in ERA since that 2020 season. So does every other pitcher.

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A few takeaways from the international rankings series

Basallo

Another year - the third here at MASNSports.com - of producing a top-20 list attempting to rank Orioles international prospects has come and gone. It’s an exercise that takes some time and some help. The first one I need to take care of myself and the second one I get from some nice people around baseball.

This list of 20 this year was quite strong, and now the O’s have a shining example of what an international signing can turn into with catcher Samuel Basallo at age 19 becoming the No. 10 prospect in baseball per Baseball America.

Again this year, this ranking helped hammer home how far the O’s international program has come.

It produced these other takeaways for me:

The top 30 rankings: The international players are really breaking through now in the team top-30 prospect rankings. When I did the top 20 last year the O’s had five international prospects in the Baseball America top 30, and now they have eight. It would be nine had they not traded César Prieto to St. Louis, where he ranks No. 17 in the Cardinals’ top 30.

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Holliday, Basallo, Mayo among O's spring invites (Hays arbitration note)

Basallo

The Orioles have a star-studded prospects list and the No. 1 farm in baseball, and their top three prospects are among their list of 20 spring training non-roster invitees announced today by the club.

The Orioles report on Feb. 14 to Sarasota, Fla., with their first workout for pitchers and catchers set for Feb. 15 and with the first full-squad workout to be held on Feb. 20.

Infielder Jackson Holliday, the No. 1 prospect in baseball, gets the expected NRI along with the club's No. 2 prospect, catcher Samuel Basallo, and their No. 3 (as ranked by Baseball America), infielder Coby Mayo.

The No. 4 and No. 5 prospects - outfielders Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad, who are already on the 40-man roster - will also report to Sarasota. All 40-man roster players join the club for spring training along with the NRIs.

The club recently dealt its No. 6 and No. 7 prospects, per Baseball America - DL Hall and Joey Ortiz - to Milwaukee for right-handed starter Corbin Burnes. The O's No. 8 prospect, infielder Connor Norby, is also among the non-roster invites. 

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Mullins' motivation for 2024 and Coulombe's new deal with team

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Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins may well be a player driven and motivated this year by what happened last year.

And I don’t mean how the Orioles’ season ended against Texas. But how his season ended and went at times – he was on the injured list twice during the year. After missing nine games total in the 2021-22 seasons, he was limited to 116 games in ’23.

Mullins hit just .198 last September and then was 0-for-12 in the AL Division Series.

During Birdland Caravan, O’s first base and outfielders coach Anthony Sanders talked about Mullins late-season struggles. In the end was he just too banged up to play?

“We as a staff, we know the vibe of the players,” said Sanders. “We know the bumps and bruises they have. You have to trust in those guys that are professionals. Even though Ced’s bat didn’t probably show up, he still brought another element to the game that this team relies on. He’s a leader of this team and I would not have done it any different way.”

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What expectations will fans have for the 2024 season?

elias celebrates playoff clinch

After their best season in years, one that saw the Orioles win in April and keep it going all year, one that saw them in the playoffs and one that saw them win postseason honors too, what do they do next?

How about keep winning and go deeper in the playoffs next time?

That sounds fair and would be a reasonable expectation for the 2024 season.

You might think, after 101 wins, the Birds had a year when everything broke right. Not exactly.

First, the Tampa Rays got off to a 13-0 start in early May were 29-7. They led the division by six games on the Fourth of July. But the Orioles produced more fireworks from that point on.

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Some team over/unders, plus some arbitration math

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Take it for what it's worth, but oddsmakers are anticipating the Orioles take a big step back in their win total for the 2024 season. BetOnline.ag this week put the over-under for Orioles wins at 87.5.

The Orioles won 101 games last year, blowing by preseason over-under totals in the 76- and 77-win range predicted by multiple outlets.

So this is a projection for a lot more than a year ago, but still many fewer than the actual total from the 2023 season.

Going by current listed totals, BetOnline.ag has the Yankees with the most wins in the American League East in 2024, followed by Baltimore, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Boston.

And while Boston would finish last in this listing, its 80.5 total is much more than the number of wins they forecast for other projected last-place clubs, including the Chicago White Sox (63.5), Oakland Athletics (57.5), Washington Nationals (65.5), Pittsburgh Pirates (72.5) and Colorado Rockies (60.5).

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It can be frustrating waiting for a trade that may never come

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One word for the MLB trade market right now would be frustrating. Frustrating for fans and maybe even front office execs alike that, while we have rumors, we have so much less actual movement and action.

The rumors about right-hander Dylan Cease never seem to end yet nothing so far has led to a move.

What might create further frustration here is that neither the Orioles or the Chicago White Sox need to make a move. They can simply keep what they have and go at it in the 2024 season. In the case of the White Sox, they could trade Cease next month, at the trade deadline, next winter or maybe never. And as for the Orioles, they may already have enough pitching.

The White Sox's Chris Getz was promoted to the general manager position on Aug. 31 and is going to want to make sure he makes the right deal if he trades Cease, a pitcher who was second for the AL Cy Young Award in the 2022 season.

Getz addressed the Cease trade talks with Chicago reporters this week.

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The Dylan Cease trade market may be heating up again

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He is 28, throws 95, 96 mph, has very solid whiff rates and has an ERA of 3.54 in 97 starts over the last three seasons. That includes his 2022 season, when he went 14-8 with a 2.20 ERA, a 1.11 WHIP and a second-place finish in the American League Cy Young voting.

Right now, it appears Chicago White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease is a hot potential trade piece, with the Orioles showing continued interest per numerous reports and now joined by, among other teams, the New York Yankees, in pursuing the 2022 All-Star. According to The Athletic, the Yankees, after losing out on free agent Yoshinobu Yamamoto, are going after free agents Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery. But now they're also chasing Cease, via the trade market.

The appeal here, beyond his talent level, is that Cease is under team control for two more years. And his salary, through arbitration, could be about $25 million total for both the 2024 and 2025 seasons. That would make Cease obtainable at a much lower price than the top remaining free agents.

All it will take to get Cease is a package of young talent. We say that in a kidding fashion, since it could mean a massive package of prospects.

The Orioles, with the No. 1 farm system in the sport, have plenty of prospects to attract any team via a trade, including the White Sox. But how far would they go for this pitcher, a pitcher who had a 4.58 ERA and 1.418 WHIP last season in 177 innings?

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O's set up well to fortify talent base in the 2024 MLB Draft

Mike Elias OPACY suit

During the Winter Meetings we found out the Orioles signed closer Craig Kimbrel, and also that top prospect Jackson Holliday could begin the 2024 season in the O's starting lineup.

We also got some very good draft news for the club. The assumption, confirmed in Nashville, was that the Orioles would have three picks well up in the draft.

Sure they won't have the No. 1 pick, as they did in 2019 and 2022, or a top five pick not No. 1, as they did in 2020 and 2021, but they will have three of the first 34 selections next July.

Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and his staff have led five previous drafts for the club since taking Adley Rutschman No. 1 in 2019, and they've never had three picks among the first 34.

In 2019, they selected 1, 42 and 71. In 2020 they picked 2, 30 and 39. Then it was 5, 41 and 65 and then 1, 33 and 42. Last year they selected 17, 53 and 64.

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After 101 wins, expectations will be high for the 2024 Orioles

rutschman celebrates division clinch 2023

The 2021 Orioles went 52-110 and finished 48 games out of first place. In an American League East where fourth-place Toronto won 91 games that season, the Orioles were 39 games out of fourth place.

No one could forsee that team two years later would win the AL East. The Orioles went from 52 to 83 to 101 wins in two seasons. It was quite a run and rise to the top of the division. They won the division last year for the first time since the 2014 season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

The Orioles, coming off that many wins - the most in the AL and second-most in the majors - are now going to have to deal with higher expectations when a new season begins, from fans and media alike.

Heading into the 2023 season and coming off a 31-win improvement, some thought the club might regress a bit before moving forward again. On their way to 100 wins, some teams surge forward, hit a bump in the road and then resume winning again. The O’s hit no speed bumps in 2023.

They got off to a good start and were 19-9 at the end of April versus a somewhat soft schedule. As the opponents got tougher in May, the Orioles held their own, perhaps showing that their winning ways of April were legit. The Orioles entered July at 6 1/2 games back of Tampa Bay, which got off to an amazing start, winning each of their first 13 games. But by July 19 the Orioles were tied for first as Tampa Bay was losing night after night. No one saw that coming, but it did.

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O's international program keeps taking steps forward and a new class is coming

Basallo

The Orioles continue to see strong signs that their international program is really starting to hum. As they get set to open a brand-new Dominican complex, in recent weeks they had four international players ranked among the top prospects in the Florida Complex League. They had seven players taken in September in the Dominican Winter League draft, led by catching prospect Samuel Basallo.

Basallo is the shining star right now among the O’s international talent, but is far from the only talent starting to get noticed.

“In recent years we planted some seeds and the flowers are starting to come up,” said the O’s Koby Perez, promoted recently from senior director of international scouting to vice president of international scouting and operations. “Our staff and scouts on the ground have done a fantastic job finding talent and I can’t say enough about our player development system. Some of the fruits of our labor are starting to show.”

Perez and the Orioles will unveil a new international signing class when the signing date arrives on Jan. 15.

“We feel good about this upcoming class,” Perez told me at the Winter Meetings in Nashville. “We feel like we’re going to have a couple of players that are publicly ranked in the signing class. And there are other guys, maybe not publicly ranked, but that we value highly as we have in the past. We’re excited and can’t wait to Jan. 15 to get these guys under wraps.”

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Several questions for O's fans

DL Hall ALDS 2023

Time for more questions for Orioles fans. A pre-Christmas edition.

It's an occasional winter feature at Steve's blog. Answer one or all the questions. Respond to the answers posted by others. Just read it all and keep your opinions to yourself.

All is possible here today.

Now on to the questions:

1) We have debated often here recently the club's need or lack of such for a starting pitching addition. So do they roll the dice with what they have or add on?

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Taking a look at a few facts with some opinions, too

o'hearn trots @ MIL

Time to take a look at a few facts that came out of the 2023 baseball season and see how some of them may play out in 2024. This is where our opinions come in.

Fact: No. 1-ranked prospect Jackson Holliday has played just one full minor league season and just 145 career games on the farm. He rose four levels last year, but played only 18 regular season games and four more in the playoffs for Triple-A Norfolk. Now he could make the 2024 Opening Day roster for the Orioles.

Opinion: O’s executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias got everyone’s attention at the Winter Meetings when asked if Holliday could make it to Baltimore for Opening Day.

"It's definitely a very strong possibility,” Elias said during an interview session in Nashville. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, but he had a historic first full season in the minors. Probably, you have to go back into, like, the '80s or '90s to find something similar to that, in my opinion, for an American kid out of high school. Got to Triple-A. Wasn’t there a huge amount of time, didn’t tear the cover off the ball, but he more than held his own and did well.”

As I have written a few times this offseason, sometimes teams just want to “get on with it” with a top prospect. They know the talent is immense and they move the youngster to the majors to complete his development while at the same time helping the big club. Holliday, as talented as he is and as mature as he is for age 20, is about at that point.

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Here is a chance to see a host of O's prospects on the field together at one time

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They will be playing in a game that doesn’t count, and it won’t even be a nine-inning game. But in mid-March at spring training in one game, we will be able to see many, maybe even just about all, of the Orioles' top young prospects on the field at one time.

It is a cool concept called “Spring Breakout,” a four-day event from March 14-17 in which each big league club’s top prospects will play another team's top group as part of a spring training doubleheader. Major League Baseball announced the event on Wednesday afternoon.

The Orioles' prospects will play the Pittsburgh Pirates' prospects on March 14 at Lecom Park in Bradenton, Fla. The schedule lists the clubs playing the major league spring game at 3:05 p.m., with the second part of a doubleheader being the prospects match starting their seven-inning game at 7:05 p.m.

No broadcasts for spring have been announced yet, but MLB Network was promoting a broadcast of the O’s and Pirates on the airwaves on Wednesday when this event was announced.

One of the neat things every year in spring training is seeing the prospects play in major league spring games. Whether they are there for just a short time or for longer, it has to be thrilling for the young players and also cool for the fans to see this young talent taking the field wearing the orange and black and representing the Orioles.

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Trying to guard against regression in the rotation in 2024

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The Orioles rotation – whether they add to it this offseason or not – just might be good enough now to take another run at an American League East championship. Currently, I expect that four members of that rotation look firm: Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, John Means and Dean Kremer.

A fifth or even someone that could bump someone else out of that four could be in a group that includes Tyler Wells, DL Hall and Cole Irvin.

Surely, the Orioles could call on five of that group of seven and feel pretty good about their rotation right now. And again, they may add to that list of pitchers and maybe add someone who is pretty good. At least that was part of the plan when this offseason began.

The O’s rotation ERA of 4.14 for the 2023 year was just seventh-best in the AL for the full season. But it was much better in the second half at 3.74. An ERA of 3.74 for the year would have ranked first in the AL as Minnesota at 3.82 led the AL in rotation ERA for the season.

Kremer and Bradish got off to slow starts this year and Rodriguez had a 7.35 ERA at the end of May. The Orioles were 35-21 at the end of May and four games out of first place. So they were doing just fine, but things would get better in the second half when their pitching – especially among their starters - really got going.

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The O's run of No. 1-ranked prospects is both amazing and unprecedented

Jackson Holliday

Analysts have used words like "astounding" and "amazing" while noting that the Orioles have had three straight players move to the No. 1 spot on the national top-100 prospects lists. Adley Rutschman went to No. 1, and then so did Gunnar Henderson. And during the 2023 season, Jackson Holliday ended the year at No. 1.

Rutschman, Henderson and Holliday, all going to No. 1. The first two are already productive major leaguers. The third could join them on Opening Day 2024.

Talk about building an elite talent pipeline. You can’t get more elite then No. 1.

During the Winter Meetings, I interviewed Jonathan Mayo, MLBPipeline.com prospects analyst. He talked about this remarkable run of No. 1 prospects by the Orioles.

“It is really astounding,” said Mayo. “Adley and Jackson being No. 1, that is sort of how it’s supposed to be when you have the No. 1 pick. But they have not missed on the No. 1 pick. At least not yet. Jackson Holliday has not played an inning of big league ball, so we don’t put the cart ahead of the horse. I think we all expect him to be a good big leaguer. They didn’t miss on those, and people miss on No. 1 picks often. Even if they end up being OK big leaguers, they don’t wind up becoming that No. 1 prospect.

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Close on a closer: O's search for bullpen help may be nearing the end (updated)

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NASHVILLE – The Orioles' search for a back-end-of-the-game reliever and a starting pitcher may now be down to just a search for a starter. The club is, according to numerous reports, closing in on a deal with free-agent right-hander Craig Kimbrel, a pitcher who is a nine-time All-Star with 417 career saves.

Even at 35, Kimbrel could be impactful for the Orioles in the later innings and could wind up as the 2024 closer with all that experience saving games on his resume.

For the 2023 Philadelphia Phillies, he went 8-6 with a 3.26 ERA and 1.045 WHIP in 71 games covering 69 innings. He recorded a 3.7 walk rate and 12.3 strikeout rate. He allowed just 44 hits over 69 innings for an average of 5.7 hits allowed per nine innings.

Kimbrel pitched three scoreless innings in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but yielded four runs over three innings when the Phillies lost the National League Championship Series to Arizona, and he took two losses in that series.

Opponent batters hit just .181/.273/.337/.611 off Kimbrel, who recorded 23 saves for the Phils with a save percentage of 82.1, which was a bit under the percentage of O’s closer Félix Bautista at 84.6. Bautista will miss the entire 2024 season after Tommy John surgery, so Kimbrel’s addition, when and if it becomes official, would deepen the Baltimore bullpen and allow Yennier Cano to move back into a setup role. The O’s would also have the likes of Danny Coulombe, Cionel Pérez and Dillon Tate for late-game innings. Pending their roles, Tyler Wells and DL Hall, among others, could also pitch significant bullpen innings.

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