It’s hard to take your focus away from Camden Yards this week, with the Orioles opening up the season and going undefeated so far against division rivals, the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees.
An argument can be made, though, that one of the most important developments for the Orioles this month isn’t happening in Maryland or in Norfolk, Va., or in any major league stadium.
On Saturday, Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman threw a live batting practice session in Sarasota, Fla., as he rehabs a right shoulder that has been bothering him, off and on, since September.
On Tuesday, he is scheduled to throw two innings or 30 pitches in an extended spring outing. He’ll probably do another of those and then end up at Double-A Bowie, where his rehab assignment will begin.
The hope is he’s back pitching with the Orioles by early to mid-May. Tillman’s on board with the schedule; he helped set it.
Rehab schedules usually aren’t worthy of their own headlines. But this one is a little different.
I was talking to a talent evaluator from another team recently, and he believes Tillman’s health is the absolute biggest key for the Orioles in 2017.
From his perspective, Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy are primed to take the next step. But they are young and both are going to have ups and downs and, at times, be inefficient with their pitches; that’s the nature of the inexperienced pitching beast.
The evaluator didn’t spend too much time discussing veterans Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley, because he fully expects both to be wildly erratic throughout the year. Some good, some bad. Some wins due to a slugging offense and some losses due to rough performances.
The way the scout explains it, the Orioles rotation should do enough to keep the team competitive, because all it has to do most nights is get to a tremendous bullpen with the score close.
But that’s where Tillman’s worth comes in. The 28-year-old is usually good for 30 starts, double-digit wins and an ERA under 3.80 (he’s done that trifecta in three of his past four seasons). What you can really count on from Tillman, though, is gutting out a start into the later innings.
Consider that from April 21 to Aug. 11 last year – when he was fully healthy and into the regular season groove – he made 22 starts and completed at least six innings 16 times. He pitched at least seven innings 10 times.
The thought is this: The Orioles need that Tillman back for 2017. Because they need at least one guy who can take pressure off the bullpen consistently. And even if the club’s fifth starter — Jayson Aquino, Gabriel Ynoa, Chris Lee or whomever – can pitch well, that guy still can’t be counted on to eat innings.
And we’ve seen this equation before. The more innings the vaunted bullpen has to throw, the less effective it will become.
So, while you’re watching the big leaguers play this April, keep an eye on the minors every fifth day, too. Because what happens this next month with Tillman may be nearly as important for the season-long success of the Orioles as what’s happening on the big league diamond.