SARASOTA, Fla. — For half a month, this was all idyllic. The Orioles traded for an ace, a new ownership group agreed to terms on a controlling stake in the franchise, and the Florida sun shone brightly on a mild February morning.

And then the other shoe dropped.

Kyle Bradish, whose breakout 2023 campaign made him a lock for a place near the top of Baltimore’s rotation, suffered a UCL sprain in January, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias announced Thursday. He will begin the season on the injured list, although Elias said he expects Bradish to pitch in 2024. What’s more: Left-hander John Means is a month behind schedule in his throwing program, leaving manager Brandon Hyde to assume the veteran will also miss opening day.

On the first day of Orioles spring training, the penciled-in rotation lost two members for at least some period of time. Neither player has an exact timeline attached to his recovery — Means, however, should return sooner than Bradish.

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Either way, the immediate fallout Thursday leaves Baltimore to assess its rotation in a different light than many expected. Without Bradish and Means, there’s an open competition at the back end of the rotation during the spring.

“I feel like we’ve always dealt with injuries and things really well, and I think this is just going to be another one of those,” Hyde said. “This allows us to give other guys some opportunities, and we do feel confident and comfortable with the guys we have in camp that are rotation candidates.”

That competition will likely revolve around the Orioles’ internal options, but Elias didn’t rule out adding pitchers via free agency or a trade.

For the purposes of this story, though, only current 40-man-roster options and nonroster invitees at camp will be considered in a bid to fill the back end of a rotation that suddenly appears much thinner. Corbin Burnes, Grayson Rodriguez and Dean Kremer seem to be locks in the starting five.

That leaves two spots up for grabs, with the most likely contestants as follows:

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By far, Wells and Irvin have the best chance of making the rotation. Both started games for the Orioles last year, and while Irvin soon lost that role and Wells wound up in Triple-A because of arm fatigue, the results they showed could carry them in a camp battle.

Cole Irvin made 12 starts and 12 relief appearances for the Orioles last season, finishing with a 4.42 ERA. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The longer-shot options are ample too and, throughout Grapefruit League action, they’ll be on display.

“There’s a lot of depth in this club, this organization,” Rodriguez said. “I think something that has really helped us over the last few years is being able to develop pitchers, homegrown talent in the minor leagues. I think we’re definitely going to have a lot of guys who can fill some roles in the rotation.”

Wells appears to be the most prudent option. He was Baltimore’s best pitcher of the first half. The right-hander held a 3.18 ERA through his first 18 games, and when he returned as a bullpen arm, he looked dominant there, too. His place on the opening day roster was always expected; whether he was in the bullpen or rotation was the question. Now Wells has an inside track to starting.

Irvin lost his starting role after three disastrous starts to begin last season, and when he came back to the majors, it was mostly as a reliever. He steadied the ship late in the year, though, by finishing with a 2.43 ERA over his final 11 appearances.

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There’s a host of starters who finished last season at Triple-A Norfolk, too, who could receive a look: left-handers Zimmermann and Povich and right-hander McDermott.

“Right now, we’re happy to have all the starting pitchers that we have, and if we can bring another one in — whether that’s minor league depth or whatever — great,” Elias said. “But, like I said, if you look at the guys who finished in Triple-A — Zimmermann, Povich, McDermott — they’re all going to get a shot here. Seth Johnson’s going to get a look.”

Zimmermann is the lone member of that group who has major league experience, and Johnson hasn’t yet reached the Triple-A level — seemingly leaving him further outside a push for a rotation spot.

Zimmermann, a Baltimore native who pitched opening day at Camden Yards in 2022, made just seven relief appearances last year. A hindrance was a core injury that required offseason surgery. He suffered it in July and pitched through the discomfort with cortisone shots.

Once healthy, Zimmermann built back his volume and strength, and adjusted his mechanics back to best practices.

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“It was definitely the hardest injury I’ve had in my career and had to overcome, so that was a mental and physical battle in itself,” Zimmermann said. “Now is the time actually I feel like I can look toward the finer things of pitching, like tweaking some pitches, ’cause the majority of it was just getting back and better and stronger.”

Povich, McDermott and Johnson make an interesting trio. All are ranked in the top 10 of Baseball America’s Orioles prospect list. McDermott, especially, is coming off a strong season in which he earned the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year honor for finishing with a 2.49 ERA at Triple-A Norfolk.

Among Heasley, Davidson and Suárez, only Heasley is on the club’s 40-man roster. Heasley, traded for this offseason in exchange for 18-year-old pitcher Cesar Espinal, pitched only 15 innings last year for the Kansas City Royals. He started 21 games the year before and held a 5.28 ERA.

Davidson and Suárez also have minimal starting experience, with just one start between them in 2023. They’re options, however, even if their experience is both limited and shaky.

At this point, Baltimore will evaluate them all — and the group that breaks camp next month is far from a finished product.

“Hyde mentioned it this morning,” Burnes said. “You’ve got 13 guys who are going to start opening day, and that’s not going to be the 13 pitchers who are going to pitch all year.”

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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