Six pitching questions facing the Orioles before the playoffs, from John Means’ role to Shintaro Fujinami’s reliability – Boston Herald

The Orioles are guaranteed to make the playoffs. At least, that’s what FanGraphs says.

The website’s projections give the Orioles a 100% chance to make the postseason with 24 games remaining. At 87-51, Baltimore is atop the American League and on pace to win 102 games.

But manager Brandon Hyde still isn’t willing to talk about the postseason yet. He’s dodged playoff questions this month, even as his team’s likelihood of making it became a virtual guarantee.

The fifth-year skipper, however, did acknowledge he’s looking for more than just regular-season success. After winning his 300th game Monday, Hyde was asked whether he received any “hardware” for the milestone.

“No, I’m hoping that I’ll get some other hardware that’s a little bit more important sometime,” Hyde quipped.

While the playoffs are a near-lock, winning the AL East and being the top seed in the circuit aren’t. To do so, and to advance in the postseason, the Orioles have several tough questions to answer and problems to solve — most of them concerning their pitching staff.

Here are six pitching-related questions the Orioles have to answer before the playoffs arrive in early October.

What role will John Means have?

Throughout the season, the Orioles have solved several challenging problems, and their answers have mostly paid off. But what to do with John Means might be the trickiest of the year.

Means’ minor league rehabilitation assignment cannot extend past Friday, meaning the left-hander will likely rejoin the team this weekend in Boston. Whether to put the former All-Star back in the rotation — one he headlined to open the 2021 and 2022 seasons — or use him as a reliever is the question. It’s one Hyde and general manager Mike Elias have been asked close to a dozen times over the past few months, and neither has provided insight on which direction they’re leaning.

Means’ results on his rehab assignment have been about as good as could be hoped for a pitcher returning from Tommy John elbow reconstruction. The 30-year-old surrendered six runs in his first 16 2/3 innings in five rehab starts.

After his first four starts came on a five-man rotation schedule with four days’ rest, his most recent one was on a six-man timeline with an extra day of rest. Means’ final rehab start is Wednesday for Triple-A Norfolk.

“We have some plans in place of some different scenarios, but we’ll kind of wait and see,” Hyde said. “He’s going to make another start there. We’ll see where we are and see how he throws and what we feel like the best thing for our team is at that time.”

How much longer will they stick with the six-man rotation?

Hyde has praised the benefits of it. Since switching to the elongated system Aug. 12, the club’s young starter pitchers — Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer and Grayson Rodriguez — have been dominant, with all but one of their 12 starts being quality ones.

“I think the six-man rotation has been enormous for all of our starters,” Hyde said. “So happy that we did that. They’ve all pitched extremely well since we went to it.”

However, it’s possible the six-man rotation will come to an end in the coming weeks as the Orioles approach the postseason, during which they will likely have just four pitchers starting games. Hyde said the club will keep the plan in place through its series against the Red Sox in Boston this weekend and reassess after. Means would be available to start Monday or Tuesday at Camden Yards.

Baltimore has a critical series against the Tampa Bay Rays next week — a four-game set that could determine the winner of the AL East. If the Orioles were to remain on turn with their rotation, Cole Irvin and Jack Flaherty would start the first two games of that series.

“We’re mapping out some guys for certain teams in a series. Might have a spot start here and there, might just go straight five-man,” Hyde said. ”There’s a lot of different scenarios. Let’s get through the weekend in Boston and then kind of reset a little bit. We’ve got Tampa, those are some big games coming up.”

Either way, the six-man rotation has achieved its goal, Hyde believes, of limiting the workloads and keeping fresh the club’s young starting pitchers as they have approached and surpassed their single-season highs in innings.

Does Grayson Rodriguez’s innings total matter?

In Monday’s win, Hyde originally planned to send Rodriguez back out to start the seventh inning at 90 pitches. But after Gunnar Henderson’s three-run homer, Hyde went with reliever Jacob Webb to start the inning — a move in hindsight the skipper is happy he was able to “knock an inning off” Rodriguez’s increasing workload.

Rodriguez has pitched 140 1/3 innings this season — 99 in the majors and 41 1/3 in the minors — and is on pace for more than 160 in the regular season. If the Orioles make a postseason run, that total could approach 180. The 22-year-old rookie totaled 75 2/3 innings in 2022 and 103 in 2021.

For now, it appears as if the Orioles will keep pitching Rodriguez every six (or soon five) days, and how could they not? The right-hander has emerged as perhaps the club’s second-best starter behind Bradish with a 2.85 ERA since he rejoined the rotation in July.

Hyde said the organization tracks a bevy of metrics after a pitcher’s outing that could determine fatigue, and that information — along with the “eye test” of seeing 98-99 mph on the radar gun late in his starts — is what makes the Orioles comfortable allowing Rodriguez to keep pitching.

“I do feel comfortable with it,” Hyde said about Rodriguez’s workload. “We’re monitoring him very closely, but we need him also. … It is on my mind the whole time, but trying to handle it the best we possibly can.”

Will Tyler Wells rejoin the Orioles? What about the other relievers in Triple-A?

Rodriguez hasn’t dealt with fatigue this season, but another one of Baltimore’s starters already has. Wells was the Orioles’ best starting pitcher in the first half of the season, but he struggled to begin the second half as he approached his high-water innings mark, spent a month in Double-A for what Hyde called a “reset” and is now in Triple-A as a short reliever.

On Tuesday, Wells pitched for the first time since Aug. 25 as he managed a fatigued arm, allowing two runs in two-thirds of an inning. If the 6-foot-8 right-hander is healthy enough to pitch and he readjusts to pitching in short relief as he did in 2021, the Orioles will have to decide whether to add him to their bullpen.

The Tides also have other relievers who spent the majority of their seasons in the major leagues: Mike Baumann, Bryan Baker and Austin Voth. It’s possible one of those right-handers makes his way back to Baltimore before the end of the season.

Is Félix Bautista able to return?

The middle relievers who fill out the bullpen are important, but no arm could boost it more than Félix Bautista’s.

The most recent update on Bautista from the team is that it is waiting for the inflammation in his right elbow to go away before assessing the degree of the injury to his ulnar collateral ligament. Even a minor injury to the ligament would be an uphill battle for Bautista to return, but the club placed him on the 15-day injured list and designated two pitchers for assignment to keep him on the shorter IL.

Bautista was perhaps the best reliever in the sport before his injury in late August. He still leads all relief pitchers in FanGraphs’ wins above replacement at 2.8.

Can they trust Shintaro Fujinami?

Bautista’s absence has increased the need for relievers capable of pitching in high-leverage situations.

One pitcher whose stuff is perhaps in the same stratosphere as Bautista’s is Fujinami. But can they trust him?

That question might have been answered Tuesday when Fujinami was lights out in the 10th inning for his second save since joining the Orioles from the Oakland Athletics in July. In 21 innings with the Orioles, the 6-6 right-hander has a 4.71 ERA and 26 strikeouts.

His electric stuff makes him a compelling option for big spots, and he’s had success in some of them. But his inconsistency remains a concern. Before Tuesday, though, Hyde was reluctant to use the right-hander in close games. Fujinami exclusively pitched in low-leverage situations over the two weeks before Tuesday’s win with a 2.57 ERA and no walks in seven innings.

Fujinami has the ability to be one of the Orioles’ two best bullpen arms. Whether he gains the trust to prove it remains to be seen.

Orioles at Angels

Wednesday, 9:38 p.m.


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