Should The Orioles Bring Back Chris Tillman?
In a recent interview, Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter was preaching patience at the slow pace of the offseason. He said he understood the anxiousness of fans wanting to know exactly who would be on the team this upcoming season, but he stressed that it was more important to take your time and make the right deals that made sense for the club from a personnel standpoint, as well for the pocketbook.
Then, speaking about starting pitchers — the Orioles’ most pressing concern — he stressed that the size of contracts for free agents might not make sense for the club and that with a four- or five-year deal, “you’re going to be happy about two of those years, maybe.”
Later the topic switched to veteran free agent Chris Tillman, who is working out at the Orioles’ spring training complex in Sarasota with Showalter’s blessing.
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“We had a choice to make,” Showalter said. “We didn’t have to let him work out at our complex. He’s a free agent. I know our people down there called and I said, ‘Oh yeah, let’s alienate somebody we might want back and tell him he can’t work out at our complex and keep an eye on him.’ That would be real smart. Just to try not to catch all those fish every day.
“Chris looks good. I was talking to Brian Ebel about him today, our new head (athletic) trainer. That’s another process.”
You don’t have to connect a whole lot of dots there to figure out that there is a pretty good chance Tillman will wind up back with the Orioles this spring. But is that a good thing? Should they want him back? And if so, at what cost?
The Orioles acquired Tillman from Seattle along with Adam Jones, George Sherrill and Kam Mickolio in a 2008 deal for Erik Bedard. After a couple of rough years in his early-20s, Tillman began to find his sea legs in 2012 and became a rotation stalwart for the next four-plus seasons. From 2012-2016, he made 143 starts and put up a 3.81 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 108 ERA+ and a 2.27 SO/W ratio.
Tillman was never a true ace stuff-wise, but he was the leader of the Orioles rotation and as reliable as they come, making at least 30 starts for four straight seasons. He has also always been a standup guy in the clubhouse, facing the press with class whether he had a great outing or not. Anyone who has been in a major league clubhouse knows what a big deal this is – when a player disappears after a terrible game, it’s his teammates who are forced to answer questions from reporters. They appreciate it when a player faces the music on their own.
Unfortunately, Tillman found himself facing that music more often than anyone wanted in 2017, as the wheels fell off. The right-hander managed just 93 innings last season, and he was rocked throughout, with a 7.84 ERA, 6.93 FIP, 55 ERA+ and 1.24 SO/W ratio. It was unfortunate for the Orioles and horrible timing for him as he approached free agency.
So what happened?
A lot of Tillman’s struggles can be attributed to shoulder problems that stretch back into August of 2016, when Tillman took a brief stint on the DL. The shoulder still bothered him in the offseason, and he received a platelet-rich plasma injection in December. Unfortunately nothing seemed to help, and his problems stretched through the spring. He didn’t make a big league start until May, struggled throughout the season and was basically a spot starter in August/September.
A few things stand out when you look at Tillman’s performances.
– Tillman’s velocity was down across the board. His four-seam fastball, which averaged 92.9 mph in 2016, was just 91.24 last year. Meanwhile, his change didn’t decline as much, dropping from 84.84 to 84.17. So the difference between his fastball and change was only about 7 mph, and you generally want a larger gap (at least 8-10 mph) than that.
– He used his fastball and curveball much less, and his cutter and slider much more. Meanwhile, everything was hit harder and more often, except for the slider.
– His swinging strike % dropped from 8.7 to 7.1.
– His K% dropped from 19.6% to 14.2%, while his walk rate increased from 9.2% to 11.5%. Thus the 1.24 SO/W ratio.
Tillman hasn’t said much on these issues – or on the potential impact of an ailing shoulder on his 2017 performances – other than to put the blame only on himself. But it seems logical that all of these issues are related to his shoulder problems. The drop in velocity could impact the faith in the fastball. Pain in the joint could alter the mechanics and delivery of each pitch, affecting command. There are a lot of ways physical pain or discomfort could have a domino effect on Tillman’s stuff, as well as his mental approach.
With everything we know about Tillman, the question now is: Should the Orioles bring him back? We know that the Orioles are desperate for starting pitching, but if they want to contend in 2018 – and that appears to be their goal at the moment – the 2017 version of Tillman will not help.
As with everything, it depends on several factors. First of all, it depends on the Orioles’ level of confidence in Tillman’s health. And as we learned from Showalter’s quotes shared at the top of this story, the Orioles are smart to let him work out at their facility in Sarasota. By doing this, and having him in contact with athletic trainer Brian Ebel, the Orioles are in better position than any other team to gauge Tillman’s health.
Remember that while it seems as if Tillman has been around forever, he is still only about to enter his age 30 season. He is still relatively young and threw only 93 innings last season, so he should be rested.
It also depends on what Tillman wants. According to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, the right-hander is only looking for a one-year deal in an attempt to re-establish himself and then hit the market again next winter. This is a double-edged sword for the Orioles. While it would limit the O’s commitment, it also makes Tillman more appealing to other teams looking for back-end rotation help and who are willing to gamble on his history. Indeed, the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers are known to have expressed interest, and there could be others we haven’t heard about.
So it probably won’t be enough to land Tillman on a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. Even Yovani Gallardo received a 1-year, $2 million deal from the Milwaukee Brewers, so you figure Tillman could do better than that. Think more like Doug Fister (1-year, $4 million from Texas) or Mike Fiers (1-year, $6 million from Detroit) with some heavy incentives based on innings/starts thrown in.
Does this make sense for the Orioles?
If they think his shoulder issues are behind him, or at least under control, then yes. If they are looking at him as a contender for the No. 5 rotation spot and not as the No. 3, then yes. If they are planning to hang onto Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Brad Brach and take another shot at contending in 2018, then yes.
That, however, is a lot of ifs.
Bob Harkins is a former editor and writer for Time Warner Cable Sports in Los Angeles, where he helped cover the Dodgers and Lakers. Prior to that, he was a senior editor and writer for NBCSports.com, leading the site’s coverage of Major League Baseball for nine seasons. He always believed that Major League catcher was the toughest job in sports -- until he wrote a series on professional rodeo cowboys. Talk about tough!