The final game of the season hadn’t reached its strange conclusion - a bouncing single into right field at Fenway Park allowing a runner to score from first base because ... you had to be there - and a topic already came up among some writers regarding opening day 2020.
Who’s the top candidate to start?
Of course, we knew that it was much too early to collect the votes. We also knew that the dozens of Dunkin’ Donuts boxes behind the press box weren’t going to lower our blood sugar counts, but I tried to crawl inside.
The easy guess is left-hander John Means, who’s likely to finish in the top three in voting for American League Rookie of the Year.
You won’t find many talent evaluators who regard Means as “a true No. 1” starter, but you won’t find anyone on the staff who did a better impression.
Means joined Chuck Estrada (1960), Jim Gentile (1960), Ron Hansen (1960), and Andy Etchebarren (1966) as Orioles rookies to make the All-Star team. He finished the year with a 3.60 ERA that ranked as the lowest in the league and fourth-lowest in the majors among rookies with at least 25 starts. And his 4.3 WAR led the Orioles and ranked first among American League rookies.
If the 2020 season started today, Means probably would be on the mound in the first inning.
Because it starts on March 26, we’ll need to find out whether Alex Cobb is healthy after undergoing hip and knee surgeries and if he gets back to a level that led the Orioles to give him a four-year, $57 million contract in March 2018.
Cobb, who celebrated his 32nd birthday yesterday, was named the opening day starter this year before landing on the injured list.
Dylan Bundy also will be tossed into the competition as long as he’s on the roster. There’s always a chance that he’s traded, because no one is untouchable, but I’d expect him to be in camp.
Under other circumstances I’d also point out that the Orioles could bring in a starter during the offseason who might earn the honor, but the rebuild doesn’t include spending big in free agency. It would have to be a veteran on a cost-friendly one-year deal, or a minor league free agent.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias indicated last month during one of his media sessions that the vision hadn’t changed since his hiring. The checkbook isn’t going to fly open. Trying to inflate the victory total isn’t a priority.
“We’re taking a broad, strategic organizational view here, and winning a couple extra games is not the end goal here,” he said. “We want to get this team back to the playoffs and have this organization be in a healthy spot for a very long time. So that’s going to be first and foremost.”
The point was made again after someone asked Elias about the most important parts of his winter agenda.
“Well, we’re going to have to prepare for the Rule 5 draft, so there’s going to be several of our players on the minor leagues that will need to be added to the 40-man, which is going to require us to take some players off, so we’ll make those decisions,” Elias said.
“Our front office is meeting about it and talking about it already, and then we’re going to try to get incrementally better as we have as guys become available to us. We just want to improve the roster, but certainly the Rule 5 adds will present some immediate decisions.”
They just won’t influence the decision on an opening day starter.
Means is far from a finished product, but his evolution in one offseason has been startling.
The exit interview with Elias and manager Brandon Hyde offered instructions to Means on how he should approach the offseason and areas that could be upgraded.
“I just think continuing the development of his breaking balls,” Hyde said. “The changeup’s there, the fastball command can improve a little bit. I think there’s still some improvement to happen there also, but I think his next step is to establish a really good slider and curveball to get guys off of the changeup.
“I think it’s going to eliminate all the foul balls that he gives up, and he’s going to get more swings and misses and be able to stay deeper in games.”
Today’s question: Did anyone outside of Means and Bundy earn a rotation spot based only on a 2019 audition?