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Analysis | The Orioles already lost an ace, but they have options available

Analysis | The Orioles already lost an ace, but they have options available

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

One day into his team’s most promising season in a generation, Baltimore Orioles General Manager Mike Elias delivered some potentially problematic news.

The ace of the Orioles’ 2023 division-winning rotation, right-hander Kyle Bradish, suffered a sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament while throwing this past offseason and will begin the season on the injured list. The heart and soul of the Orioles’ rotation during their lean years, left-hander John Means, is also behind with elbow trouble. It remains unclear when either starter will be back up.

But if there is good news for the Orioles, who traded for Corbin Burnes this month and therefore will not be without an ace to start the season, it is that this year is particularly forgiving for teams needing sudden help as spring training begins.

The Orioles, seemingly willing to spend, do not need a spree

This year’s free agent market has been among the slowest moving anyone can remember, which some in the industry attribute in large part to the fact that notoriously patient agent Scott Boras represents many of the top players. Two of the top starters available entering this winter — lefties (and Boras clients) Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery — remain unsigned.

Now, the Orioles do not seem likely to pivot from Bradish and Means to Snell or Montgomery, both of whom were projected to secure nine-figure deals and both of whom seem willing to wait for them. Elias was clear as early as November that his team was more likely to obtain help on the trade market, as it did with Burnes, than to compete for the more expensive free agents.

Plus, Elias told reporters in Sarasota, Fla., that Means, who returned from Tommy John surgery late last season only to be shut down because of elbow discomfort, is about a month behind and therefore not lost for the season. He also made clear that, unlike many pitchers diagnosed with UCL injuries, Bradish is not immediately doomed to Tommy John surgery: He underwent a platelet-rich plasma injection in an attempt to treat the injury without surgery and will begin a throwing program Friday.

Still, many pitchers who suffer UCL sprains do not successfully fend off surgery (see Bautista, Felix), and the Orioles, who are hoping to contend for a title this year, simply cannot count on Bradish to be the ace-caliber starter he was for them last season. And they do not have seasons to waste crossing their fingers: The Orioles are in what should be a golden era, one in which they are loaded with elite, cheap position-playing stars not yet burdened by the weight of looming free agencies or the wear and tear years in the big leagues can cause.

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Maybe both Means and Bradish will return to form by summer and the Orioles rotation can get through a few months with Burnes, up-and-comer Grayson Rodriguez, Dean Kremer and some combination of Jonathan Heasley, Tyler Wells, Cole Irvin and Bruce Zimmermann. Elias has been patient in his approach to securing outside help in recent years, and he told the Baltimore Banner and others Thursday that while he is “remaining on the phones,” he doesn’t “want to go crazy ringing the alarm bells there.”

But because the free agent market has moved slowly, they do have options that would not require them to abandon financial sanity. For example, veteran starter Hyun Jin Ryu remains a free agent as of Thursday. Ryu, who will be 37 this season and has struggled to stay healthy at times, nevertheless has a 3.27 career ERA and a history of success. A less decorated starting option, recent Phillies swingman Michael Lorenzen, is also still available. Lorenzen compiled an all-star first half last season with the Tigers before being traded to the Phillies, for whom he threw a no-hitter before struggling so much late he hardly factored into their postseason plans.

Righty Mike Clevinger, who had a 3.77 ERA in 24 starts for the White Sox last season, remains available. So does former Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer, who hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since he was suspended in the wake of domestic violence allegations against him in 2021. Bauer said on Twitter when news of the Bradish injury broke that he would “love to play” for the Orioles; asked about Bauer’s stated interest, Elias declined to comment.

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The Orioles also could pivot to the trade market, in which they already made use of their seemingly endless prospect capital to get Burnes. White Sox righty Dylan Cease, who has been rumored as a potential target all winter, was sitting at his locker at Camelback Ranch when the news of Bradish’s injury broke Thursday. So far, the White Sox’s asking price for him has been too high for the Orioles or any team to match — and as Elias suggested, the Orioles do not seem likely to make a panicked splurge now.

But the Marlins have plenty of pitching depth, including cheap, controllable starters such as Edward Cabrera who could be part of a long-term plan, too. The Guardians are still holding Shane Bieber, who will be a free agent after this season. The Mariners have, at times, seemed willing to entertain conversations about just about anyone. Options exist, though the asking prices seem likely to grow now that everyone knows the Orioles are facing some unexpected starting pitching deficits.

Still, while the Orioles began their spring with more bad injury news than any team in baseball, they are, in some ways, lucky the injuries came this year. Normally by mid-February, the market is all but closed. This year, the starting pitching market is somewhat picked over, but the shelves are hardly bare.

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