The Orioles officially entered a rebuilding phase earlier this week by trading four-time All-Star infielder Manny Machado and have made another move reflecting their new direction.
Longtime starting pitcher Chris Tillman was designated for assignment on Friday, leaving the status of his major league career in doubt. Once an anchor of the starting rotation for three playoff-qualifying clubs in Baltimore, the 30-year-old right-hander has posted an 8.42 ERA since the start of the 2017 season and had been on the disabled list since May with a lower back strain. The organization hoped an extended minor-league rehab assignment might get Tillman back on track, but he pitched to an ugly 6.75 ERA in six starts among four different affiliates.
The writing appeared to be on the wall last Sunday when scheduled starter Jimmy Yacabonis was scratched due to illness and the Orioles elected to pitch a bullpen game even though Tillman was on turn to pitch that same day. It’s unclear whether the veteran will accept an outright assignment with Triple-A Norfolk or will elect to become a free agent.
Tillman was having arguably his best season in 2016 and coming off a strong seven-inning victory in Oakland on Aug. 11 to lower his ERA to 3.46 when he began experiencing right shoulder discomfort and was placed on the DL soon thereafter. He returned to pitch a month later and put up respectable numbers the rest of the way and even started the American League Wild Card Game despite underwhelming velocity. The shoulder problem resurfaced that offseason, prompting a platelet-rich plasma injection and forcing him to miss the first month of the 2017 season.
He hasn’t been the same since the shoulder injury as the Orioles wrongly bet that his alarming 7.84 ERA in 93 innings in 2017 was an aberration and re-signed him to a one-year, $3 million contract in February. Tillman has repeatedly insisted his shoulder has felt good over the last two seasons, but his velocity and lower arm slot reflect a pitcher either lacking the same range of motion or compensating to avoid the previous pain. In seven starts this season, he was 1-5 with a 10.46 ERA while walking 5.7 batters and striking out only 4.4 per nine innings.
His final two ugly seasons shouldn’t diminish what Tillman accomplished for the Orioles, who acquired him and five-time All-Star center fielder Adam Jones from Seattle as part of the blockbuster Erik Bedard trade in 2008. After struggling in parts of his first three major league seasons, Tillman posted a 2.93 ERA in 15 starts in 2012 to help Baltimore qualify for the postseason for the first time since 1997. He followed that with back-to-back 200-inning campaigns, making the All-Star team in 2013 and anchoring a second-half rotation surge in 2014 that helped the Orioles win the AL East championship.
In 10 major league seasons, Tillman is 74-60 with a 4.57 ERA over 1,145 innings.
In other Friday roster news, the Orioles promoted infielder Renato Nunez from Norfolk. The 24-year-old has hit .167 in 72 major league plate appearances split between Texas and Oakland, but he owns a career .788 on-base plus slugging percentage in the minors. He was claimed off waivers from the Rangers in mid-May and was batting .289 with five home runs, 25 runs batted in, and an .804 OPS for the Tides.
Nunez was starting at third base against Toronto on Friday night with Tim Beckham now back at shortstop to replace the departed Machado.