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Pondering the future of John Means and the Orioles

The O’s lefty has been dominant to begin the season, and could be the ace that the club has needed for so long. But it’s unclear if the trajectory of the player and team will line up favorably.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tough to define what makes an “ace” starting pitcher, but you know it when you see it. John Means has looked every bit like an ace so far this season.

Means’s stats speak for themselves. Through his first five starts this season, the left-hander has a 1.50 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and a .171 opponents’ batting average. He’s been dominant, and it’s not as if these types of performances came out of nowhere. Means just did something similar to wrap up 2020; during his final four outings of the year he had a 1.52 ERA over 23.2 innings while opponents hit .146 against him.

Now, you put those two impressive streaks together, and it still only makes up about a third of one normal season, so we should be careful about predicting a Cy Young win for Means just yet, but it is encouraging. Add in that Means made the all-star team in 2019, the same year he finished second in the voting for American League Rookie of the Year, and you have a slightly longer track record on which you can start to dream a little.

At this moment, it feels like the sky is the limit for Means and the Orioles. Maybe the organization has finally discovered the type of frontline pitcher to lead them into the future. Wouldn’t that be something? If that is, in fact, the case, this whole rebuild is about to get an injection of jet fuel that brings the potential World Series into view a lot sooner than originally expected.

OK, now that we are all excited, this is the part where we take a step back from the rosy picture just painted and face reality.

The Orioles still have a ways to go in this rebuild. Plopping Adley Rutschman into their lineup tomorrow wouldn’t fix all of the ways that the offense is scuffling. Not to mention, Means cannot pitch everyday. Who is going to fill out the rotation around him? Maybe one of Bruce Zimmermann, Dean Kremer, or Zac Lowther turns into a significant pitching partner, but that’s far from a guarantee. The bigger talents like Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall won’t make their way to Baltimore until late next year at the earliest.

Then it becomes a matter of how the career arc of Means lines up with the opening of the Orioles’ competitive window. Means is 28 years old, and in the middle of his third full season in the big leagues. He will have three additional years of team control following this season. That begs the obvious question of Mike Elias and Orioles decision makers: Are the Orioles going to be legitimately good sometime between now and the end of 2024?

While we can’t know what will actually happen in that time, it sure seems like the Orioles are planning to get back into the playoff discussion by sometime in that range. Unless chaos ensues, just about every significant prospect currently in the team’s farm system is expected to be in Baltimore by then, and that’s before taking into account any interesting youngsters that get added in the June draft. The Orioles should be quite talented in the near future.

So, end of article? Hold on to Means, build the pitching staff around him, and make some October memories, right? Oh come on, you know it’s not that simple.

There is an obvious way that Means could potentially help the Orioles even more without being on the Orioles. A left-handed pitcher with years of team control and an ever-rising ceiling of potential may be the most valuable trade chip in the sport. And the possible return that lands in Baltimore has a chance to be the type of package that launches the organization back into relevancy.

It wouldn’t be the first time the Orioles dealt a talented, left-handed ace. The Erik Bedard trade with the Seattle Mariners handed the Orioles an all-star reliever in George Sherrill, a rotation fixture in Chris Tillman, and one of the best players in franchise history in Adam Jones. If they could guarantee that Means would generate a similar return now that would be a deal the O’s brass pulls off tomorrow.

But the trade market is very different now than it was in 2008, when the 5-for-1 Bedard swap went down. Clubs seemingly value young, inexpensive players and financial flexibility above all. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get a good deal, but it’s tougher.

An imperfect comparison to what the Orioles might be able to expect to receive would be the package that the Pirates obtained over the winter in exchange for right-hander Joe Musgrove. It was a three-team deal with the Mets and Padres, but ultimately the Pirates did add five players: four minor leaguers and big league reliever David Bednar. Three of the prospects are regarded fairly highly with the best being teenage outfielder Hudson Head.

That deal is far from a slam dunk win for the Pirates. Musgrove has pitched well for the Padres thus far, and none of the players that ended up in Pittsburgh are projected to be organization-altering talents, but it is still quite early. Whatever the case, it gives an idea of what the market looks like for late-20’s hurlers with upside and team control.

Of course, the Orioles are under no obligation to trade Means. But it would be foolish to not at least listen to any teams that might come calling. The front office needs to be honest with itself about the team’s current trajectory. They need more time to put a winner on the field, and Means is going to be a significant factor in how they get there one way or another.

There is a third option, and that would be to discuss a potential extension with Means. If they are going to do something like that, it would be wise to make it happen sooner rather than later; buy out the years of arbitration and tack on a year or two additional. Means and his representatives may not go for it, but again it is worth the conversation.

This is a good problem for the Orioles to have. Needing to sort out the best way to handle an ace pitcher is not something this organization has faced since Bedard, and before him it was Mike Mussina.

Fortunately, Elias and his crew have time on their side. Means does need to build up more of a track record before either a blockbuster trade or big money contract become a reality. All the while, the Orioles can work with their young pitchers and hope that they make it to Baltimore in time to partner with Means at his absolute best.