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When John Means returns, Orioles rotation around him will be different — and better — than one he leaves

Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Baltimore Orioles pitcher Tommy John will have season-ending Tommy John surgery.

Across four paragraphs, white text on a black background posted to Twitter, the gut-wrenching reality settled in regarding what began as forearm tightness and ended as season-ending Tommy John surgery.

That’s what Baltimore Orioles ace John Means posted Saturday afternoon, confirming the worst-case scenario with a succinct update on his impending elbow reconstruction surgery.

Means finds his season derailed before it had barely begun. He had thrown just eight innings, departing his second start of the season after four innings and 51 pitches as a precaution. Over the next few days, what Means initially described as forearm tightness upgraded to a 10-day and then 60-day injured list designation. It went from tightness to an elbow strain to an elbow sprain.

The elbow reconstruction surgery leaves the left-hander staring down at least a year-long recovery.

At the end of that four-paragraph update, however, was a glimpse toward the future. “I’ll be back,” Means wrote. And he will be, because Tommy John surgery — while involving an arduous comeback — isn’t the career-threatening operation it once was.

Bruce Zimmermann has gotten off to a strong start with the Baltimore Orioles in 2022.

When Means returns at some point in 2023, the rotation and team he left this season will most likely look much different. He’ll come back as the leading man in an up-and-coming rotation, one boasting three top prospects due to make their major league debuts and another left-hander — Bruce Zimmermann — who has been lights out to begin this season.

So while the injury is a major setback for a pitcher who aimed to reach 200 innings this season, the long-term outlook isn’t as bleak. The 2022 Orioles aren’t in win-now mode. But as the prospects begin to arrive and Means returns to health, perhaps 2023 will feature a different mentality, with a once-again healthy Means at the forefront.

“I’m obviously disappointed,” Means wrote, “but more motivated than ever.”

Prospects won't be rushed: When Means first sustained the injury, manager Brandon Hyde said the loss of the team’s ace wouldn’t accelerate the promotions of any prospects. But three pitchers should soon find their way to the big leagues — and if all goes according to plan, they should stick in the rotation going forward.

Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, baseball’s top pitching prospect, could arrive by midsummer. He’s blown his way through Triple-A lineups, allowing two runs with a 0.49 WHIP in 14 1/3 innings. Following him is left-hander DL Hall, the No. 3 prospect in Baltimore’s farm system, according to Baseball America, and right-hander Kyle Bradish (No. 9).

The Orioles have placed much of their future on those three arms. Hall remains on the development list as the organization slows his recovery from a stress reaction in his left elbow last season. Bradish has largely matched Rodriguez’s production at Triple-A Norfolk, conceding two earned runs in 15 innings.

“We’re not going to rush prospects,” Hyde told reporters in Los Angeles. “We’re going to do what’s right for them. We’re throwing the ball right now extremely well as a staff. Since John has been out, different guys have stepped up and we have to continue to do that.”

Zimmermann looks to be a fixture: Zimmermann figures to be a fixture in the rotation moving forward, taking a step forward this season. The southpaw, with a changeup-heavy arsenal akin to Means’, became the first Orioles starter since Jim Palmer in 1978 to begin the season with at least 14 scoreless innings.

Adding Means to that group of four would set up a rotation that seems — at least on paper — capable of competing in the American League East. Means remains under team control through the 2024 season, when he becomes free-agent eligible.

No certainties: There are few certainties in baseball. Recoveries from Tommy John surgery are smoother than they once were but aren’t without hiccups. And the development of prospects has unexpected twists involved, too.

There’s plenty to take away from that four-paragraph statement Means posted to Twitter. The multiple MRIs confirming the need for Tommy John surgery. The disappointment of a season lost so early. But focusing on that last line — “I’ll be back” — is a salve of sorts to the burn Means’ prognosis leaves on the 2022 campaign.

It’ll take a year, but the rotation Means will rejoin could be much better than the one left in his wake. And that’s a glimmer of hope on which to cling tightly.