As the Baltimore Orioles’ brass gets set to head to Nashville next week for MLB’s annual winter meetings, one issue that’s on the table for the Birds is what they should do with starting pitcher Chris Tillman. First off let’s back up a bit; I remember when Tillman came up from triple-A in July of 2009 and make his big league debut. Tillman was pretty solid that night, however he only finished the season 2-5 with a 5.40 ERA. At the time I remember thinking how good it was that the Orioles had so much promising young pitching talent. However I was also concerned that they were promoting a 21-year old kid to the majors to make his big league debut.
Looking back, Tillman came up too early (as did Brian Matusz among others). While the O’s had noble intentions by bringing Tillman up when they did, they also did him a disservice in that fans expected a big league-ready pitcher each time he went to the mound. Instead what they got was a work in progress. Finally this past season (three years later at age 24), something finally clicked for Tillman when he came up in the beginning of July. However he’s also out of options at a very young age as a result of going back and forth so many times. Throughout those three years, fans and coaches grew impatient with Tillman, and odds are he probably grew a bit impatient with the direction of the organization. However now after a very successful second half in 2012, what should the Orioles’ plan be regarding Chris Tillman?
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In effect, the Orioles have two options: earmark Tillman for the starting rotation in April, or trade him. (He could also come out of the bullpen I suppose, but let’s assume for the time being that’s not a viable option.) In 2012 Tillman’s numbers were as follows: 84 IP, 9 W, 3 L, 2.93 ERA, 66 H, 12 HR, 24 BB, 66 K. I would submit that those numbers might not even do justice to how good Tillman looked in his starts for the most part. So why would the O’s consider trading him? To be blunt, his trade value is as high as it’s ever been. In fact, it might be higher than it could ever get. Tillman’s previous career-low ERA was in 2009 (5.40) over 12 games. It’s not just about the numbers, it’s also about how he mixed his pitches. I’m not sure any other Oriole pitcher changed speeds the way that Tillman did this past year. The same is true of location/command; Tillman owned the inside of the strike zone during games in 2012. Not only this, but he would go to a prospective team with four full years of team control, and he won’t be eligible for arbitration until 2014.
If you’re in the trade camp, the question is what could the Orioles get for Tillman? One knock against him is that while he looked like a different pitcher in 2012, he’s hardly proven that he’d be able to do that over an extended period of time (multiple years). That combined with the fact that he’s out of options (due in part to the Orioles mismanaging him over time) does add a bit of risk to taking a guy like Chris Tillman on board your team. It’s tough to say that a guy like Tillman could bring in on the trade market, where players are only worth what someone else is willing to pay for them. If the Orioles could get a major league-ready option at first base, I think they might have to listen to that offer. But needless to say I would suspect Dan Duquette wouldn’t allow Tillman to go for pennies on the dollar IF in fact he ends up on the trade market.
My hope (and my personal belief) is that Tillman will be earmarked for the starting rotation in April. Again, there is a bit of risk involved in that given that he doesn’t have options. If he struggles, perhaps even as early as in spring training, the Orioles will have no choice but to either stick with him or outright release him. However I would submit that’s a risk you take on with any player, especially pitchers. Are the Yankees not taking on some risk in bringing back Andy Pettitte again if they choose to do so? I think it would send a bad message to other members of the organization if the Orioles dealt Tillman. It would say that after a lot of sweat and hard work the guy finally was able to right himself but the organization didn’t want to run the risk that it was real.
Again, if the right deal comes along I think the Orioles would listen. That’s probably true of most players on the roster right now with the exception perhaps of Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Manny Machado, and Dylan Bundy. One more thing about Tillman though; he’s a very hard worker. He didn’t just go down to Norfolk each time, throw a bit, and then get called back up when the time was right. He really worked at getting his delivery and command right. And in the end it seems that he did. So the Orioles should have no reason to believe that he’s simply sitting on his rump in the off season and doing nothing. I suspect he’s probably working out and getting ready for the new season so as to ensure that he retains that command. Assuming he’s on the roster (and I have no reason to assume that he won’t be), he’ll definitely be a guy to watch throughout spring training.