As the Orioles packed up their lockers in the visitors’ clubhouse at Globe Life Field last week, John Means had similar — yet also different — feelings of disappointment.
Means diligently worked for 16 months to make his way back from elbow surgery and pitched like one of Baltimore’s best starters in September, only to have a flare-up in his left elbow two days before the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers started.
“Yeah, it was tough,” Means said about missing the ALDS after the Orioles’ loss in Game 3. “These guys have been so good all year. But obviously I wanted to be out there, try and help this team, but it just wasn’t in the cards.”
That elbow discomfort Means felt during his two-inning simulated game turned out to be something “small,” he said, and the decision to hold him out of the ALDS was “just one of those precautionary things.”
Past the disappointment of missing the Orioles’ first playoff appearance since 2016, Means’ elbow being structurally OK is good news for the left-hander and Baltimore’s rotation in 2024. Means said he expects to have a “normal” offseason and head into spring training ready for a full season.
“I’m looking forward to that,” Means said. “I should be ready to go. I’m looking forward to spring training when I’m not held back.”
Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said during his end-of-season news conference last week that Means’ elbow is in “good shape.”
“His elbow just kind of barked at an unfortunate time for him, but we’ve gotten it looked at and he’s gonna be fine, so he’ll be a full-go in spring training,” Elias said. “Nothing needed for treatment with him other than just kind of time and rest.”
Means suffered through the Orioles’ painful rebuild as the club’s best starting pitcher. He was an All-Star and AL Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2019 and the team’s opening day starter in 2021 and 2022. But in his second start of the 2022 season, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow and later underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction.
Three weeks after his surgery, the Orioles promoted catcher Adley Rutschman and transformed into a playoff contender. From the time of his injury to when he returned in September 2023, Means watched from the side as Baltimore emerged from the rebuild to play important games through the 2022 season and then spend the first five months of the 2023 campaign as one of MLB’s best teams.
The hope was Means could return in July, but a muscle strain in his back delayed his return by about two months.
“It was up and down, for sure,” Means said of his 2023. “I was glad I made it back eventually. I was hoping to make it back for more, but, yeah, I was happy with how I felt when I was back, so I guess that’s all you can ask for.”
Even though he only started four games and didn’t pitch in the postseason, he still played an integral role down the stretch. He posted a 2.66 ERA in 23 2/3 innings, including a masterful start in Cleveland in which he took a no-hit bid into the seventh to help end a three-game losing streak.
“The guy came out of nowhere and saved our division title in Cleveland, and I’ll never forget that,” Elias said.
Not having Means in the ALDS did play a factor in the sweep, although whether the left-hander would’ve made a big enough difference to turn the series is unlikely. It’s also unclear whether Means would’ve started Game 3 in Arlington, Texas, or come out of the bullpen sometime in the series, but manager Brandon Hyde said not having Means affected how he could use the rest of his pitching staff.
“It’s just one of those things that happened. It’s unfortunate, but it happened and it didn’t allow us to have one of our starters go in the bullpen,” Hyde said.
In 2024, Means could once again help lead the Orioles’ rotation, but one that’s much better than the ones he headlined during the rebuild. Kyle Bradish emerged this season as one of the AL’s best starting pitchers, while rookie Grayson Rodriguez bounced back from a poor first half with a stellar second, although he struggled in his one postseason start.
After the Game 3 loss to the Rangers, Means said getting playoff experience will be beneficial for a team that’s still on the upswing.
“This is something that, you know, is going to be very useful down the road,” he said. “This team is so young and so talented and so smart, too, that they’re just going to be able to be even better next year.”