Orioles roundtable: Answering questions about Baltimore’s AL East chances, John Means, the September bullpen and more


The stretch run is here, and the Orioles enter it as the American League’s best team.

Baltimore (83-50) is on pace to win 101 games — potentially reaching the century mark for the first time since 1980 — after going 18-9 in August. But the Tampa Bay Rays kept pace with a 17-8 mark to remain just 1 1/2 games back of the Orioles atop the AL East.

With 29 games remaining, FanGraphs gives the Orioles a 99.9% chance to make the playoffs, but playing well enough down the stretch to win the division and enter the postseason on a high note is critical.

With about one month remaining in the regular season, Baltimore Sun Orioles reporters Nathan Ruiz and Jacob Calvin Meyer and editor Tim Schwartz answer five questions facing the team.

Will the Orioles win the AL East?

Ruiz: Yes. The loss of All-Star closer Félix Bautista to an ulnar collateral ligament injury obviously hurts their chances, but it’s not as if the Rays are at full strength, either. Baltimore’s best trait throughout the year has been its depth, and it has a fair share of available reinforcements on both the pitching (John Means, Tyler Wells, Bryan Baker and Mike Baumann) and hitting (Aaron Hicks, Joey Ortiz and Heston Kjerstad) sides. The Orioles also have a lighter remaining schedule than Tampa Bay, though the division could come down to their four head-to-head games later this month at Camden Yards.

Meyer: No. The Orioles have been more consistent than the Rays, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been better. Tampa Bay has scored 55 more runs and allowed 35 fewer with just one more game played. The Rays have a Pythagorean record based off their run differential of 85-49 compared with the Orioles’ expected mark of 76-57. Yeah, yeah, that’s why the play the games — and apologies for any flashbacks the word “Pythagorean” just gave you to math class — but run differential is oftentimes more predictive than a team’s actual record. Neither team is flawless, but the Orioles have shown cracks. Now without Bautista, every member of the bullpen not named Yennier Cano or Danny Coulombe has been inconsistent or is a newcomer without a proven track record. The starting rotation also has question marks. Cole Irvin has been solid recently, but he has one quality start out of 11. Jack Flaherty has a 6.41 ERA since joining the Orioles at the trade deadline. Kyle Gibson is coming off his worst month of the season. And the three starters who have been most effective — Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez and Dean Kremer — all have workload concerns. Either way, this is a toss-up that will come down to the last week of the season.

Schwartz: Yes. The Rays have been playing some really good baseball as of late, but the Orioles have been a model of consistency this season. Without Wander Franco, their star shortstop on the restricted list, and Shane McClanahan, their ace who recently had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, Tampa seems more likely to slump just enough for Baltimore to retain its lead in the division. But as Nathan said above, it will probably come down to the four-game series in mid-September.

When John Means returns, should he join the rotation?

Ruiz: Given the inconsistency the Orioles have gotten out of the veteran half of their six-man rotation, Means certainly deserves a chance to start. In August, Bradish, Rodriguez and Kremer recorded a 2.38 ERA and 3.32 FIP, an ERA-like metric determined using aspects only in a pitcher’s control such as strikeouts, walks and home runs. Gibson, Flaherty and Irvin, meanwhile, had a combined 6.20 ERA and 4.83 FIP in their starts. It’s a lot to ask Means to return from Tommy John surgery and be the 2019-21 version of himself, but he doesn’t even have to do that to be an upgrade.

Meyer: This is a tough question — so tough neither manager Brandon Hyde nor general manager Mike Elias has an answer yet (or, rather, an answer they’re willing to share). On one hand, why not? Give Means a chance and see if he’s fully back to himself. On the other hand, should a starter with a career 3.81 ERA and 4.59 FIP coming off Tommy John and pitching in his first big league action since April 2022 actually be expected to provide a boost? Perhaps it would be best for the Orioles and Means’ future to ease him back in with a long-relief role in the bullpen.

Schwartz: It depends. If Gibson has another rough outing, I’d put Means in his spot in the rotation and have Gibson ready to piggyback him. But the Orioles have a good thing going right now with their rotation, and Means is jumping right into a scenario in which every game matters. Perhaps Baltimore will opt to have him pitch in long relief to get him ready to rejoin the rotation later this month in case another starter falters down the stretch.

Which reliever is most likely to step up into a high-leverage role?

Ruiz: DL Hall. In Hall’s past 11 short-relief outings for the Orioles over the past two years, he’s allowed one earned run in 12 innings with three walks against 13 strikeouts. The velocity he was missing earlier in the year is back, and Hyde quickly inserted him into high-leverage situations once he was recalled as Bautista’s roster replacement. The Orioles still believe Hall can be a starter in the future, but he’s shown a lot of upside in this role, too.

Meyer: My heart says Shintaro Fujinami, but my head says anyone but. Fujinami certainly has the talent, but he’s been too inconsistent. I’ll go with Wells. He isn’t the reliever Baltimore is set to recall Friday as rosters expand to 28 (that’s Joey Krehbiel), but it’s possible he is called up in September. Wells went from being Baltimore’s top starter in the first half, to Double-A for what Hyde called a “reset,” to now pitching late in games in a short-relief role with Triple-A Norfolk. His high home run rate is a concern, but he has experience in the back end of a big league bullpen from 2021 and is being primed for a high-leverage role now.

Schwartz: Hall. Have you seen his stuff recently? The guy is just nasty, and that stuff from a left-hander plays late in games. Assuming Hall continues to avoid walking batters, he should be setting up Cano.

What under-the-radar player will have a big impact down the stretch?

Ruiz: It’s hard to consider a former top 100 prospect “under the radar,” but that largely described Jordan Westburg’s tenure in the Orioles’ system. Despite a strong all-around skill set, he’s often been overlooked relative to Baltimore’s other top infield prospects, and in the majors, he’s found himself battling Adam Frazier and Ramón Urías for playing time despite having more upside offensively and — certainly in Frazier’s case and perhaps in Urías’ — defensively. He seems the most likely of that bunch to have a big September.

Meyer: Every great team needs a folk hero, and Frazier has the chance to be that for this one if it makes a postseason run. For most of the season, the veteran second baseman has been a league average hitter and a below average defender. But, whether there’s rhyme or reason to it, he’s been clutch. No Oriole is outperforming his expectations more with runners in scoring position than Frazier is with his .958 OPS in such situations. September and October are about those moments.

Schwartz: Fujinami. He giveth and he taketh, but you can’t deny he has the stuff to get important outs in a pennant race. If he can string together a few good outings and get back into Hyde’s good graces (and into more high-leverage roles), Fujinami will have a lot to say about how the Orioles fare. And if he continues to be unpredictable, that’s still an impact on the team — just more likely to be a negative one. I’d guess he will get himself sorted out and will be a key piece of the bullpen soon enough.

Who will be chosen as the Most Valuable Oriole?

Ruiz: Even if his UCL injury sidelines him for the rest of the year, Bautista still has a strong case. Despite throwing only 61 innings, he leads Orioles pitchers in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement and ranks second in Baseball-Reference’s. Four times, he pitched a scoreless bottom of the ninth to send a game to extras and, after the Orioles scored in the top of the 10th, dominated the bottom half to close out a victory. He was invaluable for Hyde and the Orioles. But an absence in the final month will be tough to overlook, so I’ll say that Gunnar Henderson ends up a runaway winner for both MVO and AL Rookie of the Year.

Meyer: Adley Rutschman and Henderson were the Orioles’ first two picks of the 2019 draft. They rose through the minor leagues together, debuted in the same season and were No. 1 overall prospects to open back-to-back campaigns. Rutschman and Henderson will share this honor, too.

Schwartz: Anthony Santander, assuming he strings together another few good weeks, should be the MVO. He’s been their best hitter as of late and, after a slow start, leads all Orioles regulars in home runs, doubles, RBIs, slugging and OPS. He doesn’t play a prime position defensively like Henderson or Rutschman and isn’t considered a star, but the numbers say he’s been their best hitter this season. But Rutschman or Henderson is more likely to be named MVO based on the intangibles.



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