Elbow Injuries to Bradish and Means Deal Blow to Orioles

Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

It happens every spring. Pitchers and catchers report to camp and begin working out… and getting hurt. Sometimes they find out they’re already seriously injured, and sometimes the injury is just one that becomes public knowledge as spring training gets underway. The last scenario appears to be the case for the Orioles’ Kyle Bradish, who will start the season on the injured list due to a sprain of his right ulnar collateral ligament that he suffered in January. He’s not Baltimore’s only starter who’s down, either; John Means is behind schedule because his offseason throwing program was delayed in the wake of the elbow soreness that knocked him off the postseason roster.

On the strength of an effective sinker and a couple of nasty breaking pitches, Bradish broke out in 2023, emerging as the staff ace in his second major league season and helping the Orioles surprise the baseball world by winning an AL-best 101 games, their highest total since 1979. Batters slugged just .165 against his curve and .272 against his slider. Both pitches generated whiff rates above 35% and graded among the best pitches of their kind in the majors; the curve was worth 15 runs above average, which ranked third, while his slider (14 runs) ranked 11th. The 26-year-old righty finished third in the AL with a 2.83 ERA in 168.2 innings, accompanying that with a 3.27 FIP (fifth in the league) and 3.8 WAR (eighth, as well as third with 4.9 bWAR). Bradish finished fourth in the AL Cy Young voting behind Gerrit Cole, Sonny Gray, and Kevin Gausman.

Bradish earned the start in the Division Series opener against the Rangers, and acquitted himself well by striking out nine while allowing just two runs. Even so, he departed with two outs in the fifth inning, down 2-1. The Orioles lost that game, 3-2, and were swept by the eventual World Series winners.

Just as Bradish began his throwing program in January, he experienced irritation in his elbow. According to general manager Mike Elias, after being diagnosed with a UCL sprain, Bradish received an injection of platelet-rich plasma in an effort to stimulate enough healing to avoid Tommy John surgery. One can understand why the Orioles kept a lid on this development during the winter, as it could have affected their leverage in trade and free agent discussions. The timeline does suggest they were aware of Bradish’s issue by the time they acquired Corbin Burnes from the Brewers in exchange for DL Hall, Joey Ortiz and a Competitive Balance Round A pick at the beginning of February.

Unfortunately, the Orioles are well acquainted with the UCL sprain/PRP sequence, having gone through it late last season with closer Félix Bautista, who was sidelined in late August and wound up undergoing Tommy John surgery in October. There’s no indication yet that Bradish’s sprain is as severe as that of Bautista, though even The Mountain’s injury offered hope of rehabbing without surgery. According to Elias, Bradish is scheduled to begin a throwing program on Friday, and he’s still hopeful that the pitcher will avoid surgery and be part of this year’s team. Per MLB.com’s Jake Reel:

“Everything is pointed in the right direction and going well right now at this time. But I’m not at a point where I want to start putting a timeline on when we’re going to see him in Major League action,” Elias said. “Right now, we’re prepping him for a lot of action in 2024, and we’re getting him ready for that as expeditiously and responsibly as possible, but there’s going to be some time involved.”

More via the Baltimore Sun’s Jacob Calvin Meyer:

“Pitching is a dangerous business nowadays,” Elias said. “You never like to hear anybody have elbow or shoulder or wrist injuries or what have you. There are a lot of people who have [PRP injections] and never get surgery, and rest and other treatments do the trick. So, hopefully, that’s where we’re at with this one.”

As for Means, the former All-Star and rotation stalwart underwent Tommy John surgery on April 27, 2022, and returned to the majors last September, making four starts totaling 23.2 innings, with a 2.66 ERA but just an 11.4% strikeout rate and a 5.24 FIP. Just when it looked he might be fit to make a postseason start, the Orioles shut him down due to elbow soreness. He began his offseason throwing routine a month later than usual, hence Elias’ statement that he’s a month behind the team’s healthy starters. Elias acknowledged that a spot on the Opening Day roster for Means would be unlikely.

With those two pitchers out, Baltimore’s rotation to start the season will most likely include righties Burnes, Grayson Rodriguez, Dean Kremer, and Tyler Wells, and lefty Cole Irvin. The 29-year-old Burnes is coming off an underwhelming season by his standards, with a 3.39 ERA, 3.80 FIP, and 3.4 WAR — all of it respectable but far removed from his dominant 2021 campaign, for which he won the NL Cy Young. The most concerning thing is that his strikeout rate has dropped by about five percentage points in each of his past two seasons, falling from 35.6% in 2021 to 30.5% and then 25.5%; meanwhile, his walk rate has climbed. He still projects to be one of the game’s 10 most valuable starters, and instead of being nickeled and dimed by the Brewers, he’s got a massive free agent contract on the other side of this season if he pitches well.

The 24-year-old Rodriguez is coming off an impressive turnaround in the middle of his rookie season. Cuffed for a 7.35 ERA and 5.91 FIP in 10 starts totaling 45.2 innings in April and May, he did Cy Young-caliber work upon returning from Triple-A Norfolk, abandoning his cutter and posting a 2.58 ERA and 2.76 FIP with a 24% strikeout rate in 13 starts (76.2 innings). The 28-year-old Kremer improved in-season as well, following a 4.78 ERA and 4.92 FIP first half with a 3.25 ERA and 3.98 FIP the rest of the way, while also shaving his home run rate from 1.84 per nine to 0.84. Like Bradish, both pitchers logged their highest innings totals in their professional careers (163.1 for Rodriguez, 172.2 for Kremer).

The same is true for the 29-year-old Wells, who spent the first four months of the 2023 season in the rotation, putting up a 3.80 ERA, albeit with 1.98 homers per nine and a 5.14 FIP. He had already set a career high in innings when the Orioles optioned him, first to Double-A Bowie and then Norfolk. He returned to the O’s in late September as a reliever, and he trimmed those numbers a bit, finishing with a 3.64 ERA and 4.98 FIP in 118.2 innings; in fact, in 13.1 relief innings between the regular season and postseason, he didn’t allow a run and yielded just one hit and one walk while striking out 11. He was expected to compete with the 30-year-old Irvin for the fifth spot in the rotation this spring, but for the moment it appears there’s room for both. Irvin split last year between the rotation and bullpen, making 12 appearances in each capacity and totaling 77.1 innings, with a 4.42 ERA and 4.43 FIP.

Should the Orioles need to dip any further into their depth, 29-year-old lefty Bruce Zimmerman and prospects Cade Povich, a lefty, and Chayce McDermott, a righty, appear to be next in line in some order or another. Zimmerman made a combined 26 starts for the Orioles in 2021 and ’22 but was rocked for a 5.54 ERA and 5.74 FIP in the process. He spent most of last year at Norfolk, where he put up a 4.42 ERA and 3.25 FIP; amid being optioned the maximum of five times, he made seven appearances for the Orioles, all in relief, for a total of 13.1 innings.

Povich and McDermott both split last season between Bowie and Norfolk. Povich, a 2021 third-round pick who rated as a 45 FV prospect as of last year’s midseason update, is a pitchability type with a low-90s fastball and a cutter that’s become a swing-and-miss weapon. He struck out an impressive 31.1% of hitters last year but put up a 5.04 ERA and 4.21 FIP in 126.2 innings. McDermott, a 2021 fourth-round pick acquired from the Astros in the Trey Mancini trade, rated as a 40 FV prospect in the aforementioned update. Wiry and long-levered at 6-foot-3, 197 pounds, McDermott throws a 93-95 mph fastball with two breaking pitches that are at least above average and a cutter, which he added last year. Command issues, though, may limit him to a bullpen role; he walked 13.8% last year while striking out 30.9%, accompanied by a 3.10 ERA and 3.67 FIP in 119 innings.

The Orioles could dip into the trade or free agent market for reinforcements, but at this juncture, it seems unlikely that they’d sign either Jordan Montgomery or Blake Snell, or revisit trade talks for Dylan Cease. According to the New York Post’s Jon Heyman, the prospects dealt to the Brewers for Burnes were the ones Baltimore offered the White Sox. Lefty Hyun Jin Ryu and righties Mike Clevinger, Michael Lorenzen, and Zack Greinke are the top unsigned free agents in terms of their 2024 projections, though they are hardly the only options.

So long as the O’s retain the hope of a Bradish return this season, odds are they won’t go overboard with an immediate impact move. The most likely scenario is that they’ll push through with their in-house options with an eye toward a midseason addition if they’re in contention again — which is expected to be the case given their 53.2% playoff odds at this writing. Still, this injury is a downer for taking one of the game’s recent breakouts out of circulation. We can only hope it’s not for the whole season.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 months ago

The injury dump on the first day of Spring Trainer never gets old, unfortunately. Though this lets me push my McDermott agenda a little more, I’d love to see him as a #5 initially since the first part of the O’s schedule is very easy.

2 months ago
Reply to  cicero3

Rooting for him