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The expected return of John Means is coming at the perfect time

With just weeks left in the season and the AL East title on the line, the Orioles could use one final boost. The return of their ace might be exactly what they need.

New York Mets v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

It’s been nearly 17 months since John Means last appeared in a major league game. The lefty exited an April 2022 start against the Milwaukee Brewers with forearm pain and had Tommy John surgery later that month. Originally expected back this past July, a setback in May pushed his potential return, but now it appears imminent. However, manager Brandon Hyde did confirm that Means will make one final start before his rehab assignment concludes.

It remains unclear what Means’ exact role will be upon his return. His most recent rehab outing saw him toss 86 pitches over five innings, which certainly sounds like a starter’s workload, but could translate to multi-inning relief work as well. However, given where the Orioles’ rotation currently stands and the sudden depth in the bullpen it seems rather obvious where the need exists.

To be clear, the O’s starters are not the liability they once were. In fact, on certain nights, it is often the starting pitcher that contributes the most to a win. Kyle Bradish has emerged as the staff ace, with his 3.03 ERA among the league leaders. Grayson Rodriguez has been a menace since his promotion from Triple-A, tossing 47.2 innings over eight starts and holding opponents to a .199 batting average. And don’t forget Dean Kremer, who has pitched to a 2.61 ERA since mid-July.

But things are less stable in the back half of the current six-man set-up. Since the start of August, veterans Kyle Gibson and Jack Flaherty have both had a rough go. Gibson’s 7.89 ERA in that time is ugly, and it’s a result of the 40 hits he has allowed in 29.2 innings. Flaherty hasn’t been much better with a 6.66 ERA, not helped by the 10 walks and two hit by pitches he’s had over 24.1 innings.

Gibson and Flaherty are a rarity on the Orioles pitching staff in that both of them have pitched in a playoff game before. But that doesn’t guarantee them a spot on this team’s postseason roster if they continue to pitch like this. And given the slim room for error in the battle for the AL East crown, Hyde and GM Mike Elias may not be able to wait that long before making a change.

The other arm in the mix right now is Cole Irvin. Brought in during the offseason to provide veteran stability, the lefty struggled early, was demoted, and has since played a filler role on the staff. Sometimes he starts, sometimes he relieves. Right now he is in the expanded rotation and has been...fine. His 3.74 ERA over these last four starts is good, but his 4.97 FIP raises some eyebrows.

There is no guarantee that Means can step in and be any better than Gibson, Flaherty, or Irvin, but we should also remember that this isn’t some average Joe we're talking about. The last time we saw Means pitch a full season, he was quite good.

In 2021, Means was the ace of an admittedly poor Orioles’ staff. Even so, he had a 3.62 ERA over 146.2 innings. The southpaw struck out 134 and held opponents to a .224 batting average and .691 OPS. Those numbers are no joke. They weren’t simply “good for the rebuilding Orioles.” They were flat out good. If Means is anywhere near that productive upon his return, this team just got a whole lot better.

And while Means doesn’t have playoff experience just yet, it’s possible he pitches even better in that environment given the context. It’s unlikely he’s asked to face a lineup for a third time. He saw his OPS against in 2021 jump from .607 the first time through to the order to .715 the second time, and finally .773 the third time. Compare that to the 2023 version of Flaherty, who has an .844 OPS against the very first time he faces hitters in a game, or Gibson, who progresses from .746 to .748 to .768 throughout a game. Means seems the best bet to keep his team in a place to compete while the other two could lose the game early.

Of course, all of that is based upon the assumption that Means in 2023 is similar to Means in 2021. We cannot guarantee that. However, looking at his pitch log from his most recent outing on August 31 indicates that things look promising.

Means’ fastball seemed to be 90-92 mph throughout the night. He averaged 91.7 mph on the offering in 2022, so things check out there.

The changeup, arguably Means’ best and most important pitch, was present. The velocity seemed fine, in the low 80s for much of the game. His location with it was a bit inconsistent, often floating high and outside. But on occasion he would bury it down and away to a righty, a thing of beauty.

He also mixed in his slider and curveball. These breaking balls give another dimension to Means’ arsenal, one he has used to great effect when healthy. The curveball, in particular, seems to keep hitters off balance. The .165 batting average against it in 2021 was the best of any of his pitches.

Asking Means to make one more rehab start feels more like a decision about roster flexibility than it does about needing to see anything more from him. The lefty is ready to go. But Elias also likes to stretch his roster as far as possible. When Means is activated a move will need to be made to create room on the active roster. It shouldn’t be a terribly difficult one, but at least this way buys the team a few more days.

Ultimately, the timing of Means’ return feels somewhat perfect. The back-end of the rotation could use a boost, and he should get back with enough of an opportunity to show the Orioles what he can do ahead of decisions on the postseason roster. If he can round back into form, he might just be the final piece of this team’s postseason rotation.