After making Orioles history, whether Means sticks around becomes next question

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Preparing for his first start since becoming the first Orioles pitcher to throw a solo no-hitter in 52 years, John Means reflected on last week’s post-game celebration in Seattle as elated teammates sprinted to the mound to mob the lefty. 

If you squinted hard enough in the wake of four last-place finishes in the last five years — Baltimore is 217-364 since Zack Britton was left in the bullpen for that 2016 Wild Card Game loss — you could almost picture such a scene taking place in some future October with a veteran Means leading the way on the hill. It was quite a daydream to enjoy, especially for a fan base that’s experienced just five postseason appearances since the 1983 World Series.

“That was such a cool feeling, and the guys that have been there before in the postseason — [Brandon Hyde] especially — were saying, ‘That was a postseason feel,’” said Means, who entered Tuesday with a 1.37 ERA over his first seven starts of 2021. “You go in the locker room, and it’s a party. Everybody’s just hugging each other and laughing and just having a good time. He’s like, ‘That’s what that feels like.’

“I definitely thought it’d be really cool to not only go to the playoffs, but to not have to do anything the next day and win the World Series and it feel like that.”

Such an experience in the future is what the current rebuild is all about, but Means emerging as the closest thing to a true ace the Orioles have had since the days of Mike Mussina begs the question of whether the 28-year-old will be around to see this arduous rebuild through. It’s a challenging dilemma for general manager Mike Elias to gauge how close the Orioles might be to turning the corner toward contending and trying to maximize wins at the major league level, something that would be easier with Means on the club. Trading him would almost universally be interpreted as a sign that Baltimore is still several years away from contending, but a lucrative return could put the Orioles in even better position for long-term success despite the short-term pain and disappointment.

Is contending more of a 2023 thing or 2025 at this point?

Of course, Means is under club control for three more seasons after 2021, meaning there’s time to assess both the standout pitcher and the future of the organization while preserving the bulk of his potential trade value. Elias can look back to his time in Houston and remember Dallas Keuchel — another lefty whose growth mindset elevated him to heights no one predicted — blossoming for an Astros club that still lost 92 games in 2014. Despite discussion at the time about the still-rebuilding Astros trading the lefty, Keuchel won the AL Cy Young Award to lead Houston to the postseason just a year later and was a critical part of a World Series championship in 2017, and that was without the Astros ever signing him to an extension.

As much as we tend to view rebuilding and player development as these linear, gradual processes, the career path of center fielder Cedric Mullins illustrates the potential peaks and valleys of reaching the desired state. The Buck Showalter era saw the Orioles go from a last-place 69-93 in 2011 to a surprising 93-69 and a trip to the postseason a year later.

The truth is that Means’ future will largely depend on how quickly other young players develop, which is why it was disappointing to see pitching prospect Zac Lowther struggle in his first major league start over the weekend. But this is also where Means’ presence can be so valuable for young pitchers navigating those same challenges to success. We forget the 2014 11th-round pick spent parts of three seasons at Double-A Bowie — with a career 4.34 ERA for the Baysox — at a time when the Orioles were still trying to contend and desperate for starting pitching, reinforcing how unremarkable his minor league career was.

“I said a great example was John Means,” said Hyde about his discussion with Lowther after the 25-year-old was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Monday. “The ability to locate your fastball to both sides of the plate, the ability to throw your fastball in and in off to right-handed hitters in this division, especially being a left-handed pitcher, is going to be key.

“I like Zac’s off-speed stuff. Meansy’s got the changeup — now he’s added a couple more weapons with two different breaking balls — but the ability to throw fastballs where you want to and be able to get into right-handed hitters, especially in this division, is going to be key. … Being a left-hander in this division, Meansy is a great example of how to navigate through really difficult lineups with that kind of stuff.”

Asked about helping mentor the likes of Lowther, Keegan Akin, Bruce Zimmermann, and Dean Kremer, Means recalled some of the lessons shared by former Orioles pitcher Andrew Cashner during his 2019 rookie season. The veteran stressed the importance of finding a consistent routine, something that’s stuck with Means as he went from a fringe top 30 prospect in Baltimore’s system to becoming one of the AL’s best pitchers in just a couple years.

While Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall remain the top pitching prospects in the organization and have the highest ceilings, the Orioles finding at least a couple reliable pieces out of this current wave of young pitchers would go a long way in expediting the rebuild and increasing the likelihood of Means sticking around to reap the rewards.

“It’s pretty cool to be able to kind of talk to these guys and kind of lead them along the way,” Means said. “Just go over experiences. Not that I’m really teaching these guys anything new, but just to go over mentality and everything that comes with the big leagues that isn’t pitching. I think that has a lot more to do with it than people think. I think a lot of pitching is just mentality.

“All of these guys have the stuff to be here. It’s just sticking around.”

After watching him make history last week, Orioles fans hope sticking around is exactly what Means will be doing — with a shot at more celebrations in the future.