There’s an enduring belief that all those rebuilding years for the Orioles will turn out to have been worth it, that an eventual World Series banner to fly forever in Baltimore will put a coda on all the unpleasant nights that started the process.

It’s a belief that exists, mainly, because abandoning it is to acknowledge those years were not really for anything at all. The longer the Orioles clubs that rose from those ashes remain this talented, the longer that hope can live.

And the farther we get from those years, the harder it is to envision many of the players who wore those losses and grew through those struggles ultimately being here to enjoy an ultimate reward that would be sweeter for them than almost anyone else.

John Means’ pending elbow surgery, announced Friday by general manager Mike Elias, comes as he is months away from free agency. Elias said he expects conversations of some kind about Means’ future to occur as he’s rehabilitating this summer. The Orioles could bring him back on an incentive-laden deal with an eye toward him pitching in the second half of 2025, the kind of low-risk, high-reward contract that teams with the resources to do so give out often, but aren’t the norm around here.

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Means isn’t your normal candidate for such a contract, though. He is uniquely positioned in Elias and manager Brandon Hyde’s tenure as a special player and person, one who wasn’t even a prospect when they arrived but made the opening day roster in 2019 for lack of other better candidates and promptly became the team’s All-Star representative. The team rallied around him as he lost his father, Alan, to cancer in 2020, and enjoyed the brightest moment of all those years of bad baseball when he threw a no-hitter in May 2021.

Yet his April 2022 Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and a back issue in his rehab last year meant he missed all but the end of 2023′s division title run, and returning elbow soreness forced him to miss the playoffs. That delayed the start of his prep for this 2024 season, and while he pitched quite well after he did return, the extremely good 20 2/3 innings he pitched in May will be the year’s only ones — and at this point, the last of his Orioles career.

He will always be an indelible part of this era of Orioles baseball, yet the same can be said for players like Trey Mancini, who was dealt to the Houston Astros at the 2022 trade deadline and also didn’t end his time with the club on his own terms. Mancini won a World Series ring and signed a two-year deal with the Cubs beginning in 2023, but is currently out of the game.

John Means #47 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches in the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds on May 4. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The rest of the players who will be most associated with this time — Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander — remain with Orioles but have performed at a level that Elias had to address Friday. He said he’s “probably not as concerned as people watching are.

“We believe in those guys,” Elias said. “We’ve seen what they’ve done over the years, we know what their skill level is, we know what baseball is like, and they’re going to do better than this. It’s coming. That said, we have other players, and if somebody is struggling, somebody is working on things behind the scenes, making changes, you may see our lineups evolve on a day-to-day basis. But those guys got us here, and we’re going to keep investing in them, and they’re going to be parts of wherever we go this season. I’m hopeful that we’re going to see those numbers creep up soon, and I think we’ve seen some encouraging swings from some of those guys. Some of the balls fall, and some of them haven’t, but there’s been some positive trends.”

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That’s particularly true of Hays, whose .614 OPS since returning from his calf injury is far higher than the .250 OPS he had in an April where he was severely weakened from a pair of illnesses. As he ceded his starting role to Colton Cowser during that early spell, Mullins’ performance started to erode with his swing out-of-whack. His expected weighted on-base average of .244 is tied for second-worst of all qualified hitters in baseball. Santander has a .781 OPS with a pair of home runs in his last eight games, but without one of his signature power surges yet, his OPS sits at .712 for the season.

Together, they’re owed over $24 million this year — about a quarter of the team’s estimated payroll — which in addition to that long track record of success for the Orioles will go a long way to keeping them around to figure out their respective performances at the plate this summer.

Like Elias, I share a pretty high level of conviction that better times are ahead for them, having seen all the same things he has and getting small glimpses of how much work is going into making that happen. The context of all that work and this Orioles season it’s taking place in is that, like Means, Santander is in his last season before free agency, with Mullins and Hays having one more year before theirs.

There’s a reason why those fifth and sixth years of service time aren’t comfortable ones around here. Those players are often moved on for future value of some kind, often in the best interest of the organization but at the cost of a happy ending for the player regarding his time in Baltimore.

That’s why the possibility of celebrating a World Series for these players, given how tough things were at the beginnings of their careers, feels so meaningful. They survived all that. Surviving and thriving are two different things, though.

Means’ elbow has prevented his happy ending. His peers are fighting to preserve the chance at theirs.