Tillman a fine flier, but Orioles shouldn’t view him as safe bet

February 19, 2018 | Luke Jones

A reunion with Chris Tillman made sense for the Orioles.

Entering the winter with three vacant spots in the rotation and rarely ever spending extravagantly on pitching, the organization re-signing the 29-year-old as a bounce-back candidate always felt like a likely outcome. Frankly, there are worse ways to spend $3 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the cash wasted on the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, and Wade Miley in recent years.

Given the familiarity and his track record over the five seasons prior to 2017, Tillman is a fine flier with the potential to reap good value if his shoulder issues are behind him and he rediscovers his old arm slot, a problem examined in great detail by Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs last June. However, he shouldn’t just be penciled in as the No. 4 starter if the Orioles are truly serious about trying to make noise in 2018.

Not after Tillman had one of the worst seasons by a starting pitcher in major league history, a significant reason why Baltimore suffered its first losing season and last-place finish since 2011.

That’s why it’s encouraging that executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said the club was still in search of starting pitching after coming to terms with Tillman on Monday. Whether that means only scouring the waiver wire for a fringe minor-league arm or two or still being in play for a legitimate free-agent starter like Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb remains to be seen.

Based on last year’s payroll, the Orioles should still have upwards of $30 million to spend on the 2018 club, but that’s assuming Duquette is working under a similar budget. Baltimore reportedly deferring $3 million of Andrew Cashner’s two-year, $16 million deal is a red flag suggesting that may not be the case.

Finding another starter for one of the top three spots in the rotation would not only improve the context of the Cashner and Tillman signings by moving them to the No. 4 and No. 5 spots, but it would give the Orioles a group more in line with where it stood a few years ago and that’s not factoring in the upside offered by both Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Of course, that still isn’t going to prompt anyone to pick Baltimore ahead of New York and Boston in the heavyweight American League East, but adding Lynn or Cobb would make wild-card discussions more realistic if some other variables were to break the Orioles’ way like in 2012, 2014, or 2016.

No matter what he did prior to 2017, Tillman really shouldn’t be viewed as anything more than a candidate for the fifth starter job competing with Miguel Castro, Nestor Cortes, and others. Both he and the Orioles will try to call last season an aberration, but it still happened as Tillman became the eighth pitcher since 1929 to produce an ERA of 7.50 or higher with at least 90 innings of work, according to Baseball Reference.

Throwing fewer fastballs than ever with diminished velocity, he allowed an obscene 2.3 home runs and 4.9 free passes per nine frames, his highest walk rate since 2010. No peripherals can soften these brutal numbers as he was worth minus-2.2 wins above replacement in 2017, meaning the Orioles could have expected better performance from a pitcher at Triple-A Norfolk.

To his credit, Tillman never used the shoulder problems that began late in 2016 as an excuse and repeatedly insisted he was healthy over the course of his nightmare season. But if all parties are being honest a year later, that hopefully wasn’t the case and perhaps he’s finally right physically.

The Orioles know him better than anyone else, making their reunion a good fit as he tries to get his career back on track and the club tries to improve its chances for 2018. He was never a bona fide ace at his best, but the right-hander was still the backbone of the rotation for the better part of five seasons.

It’s a fine bet at such a low cost to see if Tillman can rediscover his old form.

But the Orioles shouldn’t yet view their efforts to fill the starting rotation as being complete.