The news of Chris Tillman’s lingering shoulder injury and the possibility that he could start the season on the disabled list was met with a healthy serving of panic and a side order of horror from the Social Media Alarmists, whose last order of business was firing manager Buck Showalter in October.
They should relax a little – at least right now.
Showalter told the media in Sarasota, Fla., on Tuesday that Tillman informed the team in December that his shoulder wasn’t fully responding to his offseason throwing program. He had a platelet-rich plasma injection to curtail inflammation and speed the healing process, but he’ll be delayed several weeks in his spring preparation.
If all goes well, Tillman is tentatively slated to pitch in an exhibition game in mid-March, and could be back starting a regular season game in early to mid-April. His three-year of streak of starting Opening Day, however, will come to an end.
Any time your rotation’s top starter is dealing with an injury, it’s disconcerting. Any time a starting pitcher is dealing with a shoulder injury, it’s doubly concerning, especially considering Tillman missed a chunk of August with shoulder inflammation.
So, how concerned should the Orioles be? Are the Social Media Alarmists justified? Is the season over before it started?
Well, here are some thoughts:
MLB teams, including the Orioles, traditionally downplay injuries initially
Years ago, I was taught by the late, great Baltimore Sun baseball writer Joe Strauss never to underplay an injury – and an Orioles’ injury, in particular. The initial diagnosis and timetable rarely matches reality. This isn’t necessarily the Orioles being coy or potentially misleading, as Strauss firmly believed, though. I just think that’s the medical game these days.
Timetables are nice for us to have something tangible in the beginning, but teams are usually medically conservative with players – a team’s primary investment – and, ultimately those vague timelines are rarely met. The Orioles, for one, definitely err on the side of caution when it comes to activating injured personnel, and that’s perfectly OK.
Showalter and company are paid to get the most out of a team for a 162-game season; if a player misses a week or two longer than initially projected, that’s acceptable, especially if the alternative is watching that player re-injure himself because he wasn’t quite ready to return.
If I’m a betting man, I’d put money down that Tillman will begin the season on the disabled list (which is now 10 days, not 15) and that he’ll be back at some point in mid-to-late April. That’s a fairly safe bet, since the Orioles won’t need a fifth starter until mid-April anyway. Could it be longer than that? That’s always possible when dealing with arm discomfort and a pitcher.
Tillman’s a tricky case when it comes to injuries
The Orioles have had their share of tough guys over the years, led of course by Iron Man Cal Ripken Jr. It’s sort of a you-understood thing in the Orioles’ clubhouse. You play hard, and you play banged-up if you can do so without negatively affecting the team.
Tillman’s in that tough-guy mold, one of the toughest pitchers I’ve been around. He has quietly pitched hurt at times throughout his career. I still firmly believe his rough 2015 was partially due to Tillman’s insistence on pitching less than 100 percent, because he didn’t want to let his teammates down in a pennant race.
There’s a fine line, of course, between playing banged-up and being an injury detriment. It’s a no-win situation for players. If they embrace time off to rest their bodies, they are considered soft. But if they play hurt and do poorly, then they are selfish and have damaged the team.
This time off is going to be a challenge for Tillman, who hates not taking the baseball every fifth day. But he can’t rush back. For the Orioles to be successful this year, they most likely need 30 starts and close to 200 solid innings from Tillman. He has to keep that in mind as he pushes through his rehab at what I’m sure will be a pace too slow for his liking.
No worries about contract status affecting Tillman’s timeline
One thing I don’t think is a concern is that Tillman will allow his pending free agency at the end of the year to determine his timeline. He’s just not wired that way. He’s not going to be fretting about what the injury may mean to his statistics and, consequently, his potential free-agent worth.
Obviously, making money is important to everyone. But Tillman is about the last guy I would expect to allow those thoughts to get into his head. If he rushes back too soon, it’s because the stubborn son-of-a-gun wants to pitch and win – not because a prolonged absence hurts his value.
One other thing on this – as I hinted earlier – head athletic trainer Richie Bancells and Showalter aren’t going to let Tillman rush back, anyway. That’s just not their styles.
This could be good for Gausman
Many people have been waiting for Kevin Gausman to pass Tillman in the rotation’s hierarchy. Whether he does in 2017 won’t be determined or several months. But you have to assume that Gausman will get the Opening Day start in Tillman’s absence.
And that’s a good development. Tillman could be gone next year. It’s time for Gausman to take more of a leadership and spotlight role. Remember, this is a kid who pitched on Friday nights in front of soldout crowds in the SEC. He’s not intimidated. So, he should get a chance to see what it’s like to be the man to start a MLB season, even if that experience is brief. I see no drawback to that.
Time to go get another veteran starter
This has been on Dan Duquette’s offseason wish list since the offseason began. It became more imperative when he dealt away sixth starter Yovani Gallardo. Now, with Tillman out at least temporarily, it demonstrates again how fragile a MLB rotation can be.
So, Duquette needs to buy insurance ASAP.
Jorge De La Rosa, Doug Fister and Colby Lewis are among the veteran free agents still available. The Orioles shouldn’t hesitate in grabbing one. Even if Tillman is back by early April, rotation depth is instrumental for teams with playoff aspirations.