With the anticipated news ultimately announced Saturday that the Orioles are putting struggling right-hander Chris Tillman into the bullpen, I figured I’d freshen the piece I wrote Friday night.
Same thoughts, same indignation, just a little more clarity now on his situation.
Tillman, once the de facto ace of this staff, is in the midst of the ultimate train wreck of a season. He missed April due to a nagging shoulder injury, and has not looked like his steady self since returning.
He’s currently 1-7 with an unsightly 8.10 ERA and an even uglier 2.04 WHIP – meaning he’s allowed twice as many baserunners as he’s logged innings.
After giving up seven runs (five earned) in two innings Thursday, the Orioles knew they had to make a move with Tillman.
Placing him on the DL wasn’t an option. He’s been adamant that he is healthy. Tests have revealed no injury and his velocity is back into the 92-94 mph range. The Orioles can’t DL him without his permission – and Orioles manager Buck Showalter said they wouldn’t go that route.
It didn’t seem right to DFA him and eat several million left on his contract; that’s an unceremonious end to the rotation’s best starter since Mike Mussina. He doesn’t deserve that – especially when the Orioles didn’t DFA Ubaldo Jimenez or Wade Miley.
So, the Orioles chose to remove him from the rotation and put him into the bullpen, despite Tillman having never pitched in relief in 194 big league appearances.
It’s probably the best choice, though not an ideal situation, either. I’m not sure he’ll be particularly good in relief. His first inning is often his most problematic.
But there is one thing I absolutely, positively would do with him right now.
I’d sign Tillman, a pending free agent, to a 2018 contract today. Or this week. No question in my mind.
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette should go to Tillman’s agent soon with a one-year offer for 2018.
Make it reasonable, make it worth Tillman’s time to consider: $6, $7, $8 million with some incentives to grow it to his contract this year. Throw in a team option for 2019, with a reasonable buyout.
Send this message to Tillman: Your 2017 may be a disaster, but you’ve done your part for this organization through the years, and so we want you back in the rotation next year. You don’t have to worry about what this season is doing to your free-agent value. You won’t have to prove to other teams you are healthy. You can go to the bullpen and keep working. Maybe you won’t even pitch much in September when rosters expand, but you won’t have to worry about it, and stress about what that means to your future.
Yes, I understand what his numbers say. And I understand that no one knows why he’s been so bad, and so there is a legitimate risk that maybe he’s done, maybe this is it for his career.
But he’s 29. He’s the ultimate battler. No way this guy gives up and walks away from baseball.
So, he’ll be pitching somewhere next year. And the Orioles have three rotation spots to fill since Tillman, Jimenez and Jeremy Hellickson are free agents and Wade Miley likely will be.
The free-agent pitcher’s market is fairly typical this winter: A couple big names – Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, maybe a Masahiro Tanaka or Johnny Cueto – an aging veteran such as Jason Vargas, who has had a strong year, and a bunch of middling starters who can fill the back-end of a rotation at an inflated salary.
Which pool do you expect the Orioles to be fishing in? Exactly.
The largest free-agent deal they’ve ever given to a starter was four years and $50 million to Jimenez, and we all know how that turned out.
Yet the Orioles will be desperately seeking starters this winter. So much that they might even consider Miley’s $12 million option.
So why not do something proactive now? Something obviously risky, but with someone who has been successful for you in the past.
Some of you may get stuck on the guaranteed part of the deal, how could anyone offer a guy with an 8 ERA $6 million or, gulp, $8 million – still a 20 percent paycut from 2017 — to get it done now, when there’s a chance you could get him for less in the offseason?
But there’s also a chance Tillman decides to have a clean break from Baltimore and takes a deal to pitch away from Camden Yards, a hitter’s haven. Maybe go to the National League and try to recoup his value on a one-year deal. If all things were even, I’d imagine he’d take a “pillow” contract in a pitcher’s park.
The problem, though, is that he’d have to wait until this offseason to get that accomplished. He’d have to endure the remainder of this season, perhaps toiling in the bullpen for two months, while not knowing his situation. Tillman and his wife just had their first child; that’s an anxious enough time for anyone.
So, something stable in an unstable period probably would be appreciated. As would the sentiment that the club still believes in Tillman despite this season’s performance.
The Orioles don’t work this way, however. They almost never have. There have been exceptions – Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy — but the rule has been wait for the market to determine the value; don’t determine it yourself.
And guys like Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop and Zach Britton, and, yes, Tillman, have watched their income potential soar beyond what the Orioles are comfortable with paying.
This is the opposite suggestion, of course. Take a risk the other way. That Tillman, at 29, still has plenty left in the tank. That 2017 was a confluence of injury and anxiety and lack of confidence and whatever else, but that it is the aberration and not the norm.
It sounds crazy. And I can’t imagine the Orioles would go for it. But sometimes it’s worth taking a risk.
The alternative is searching for a guy like Tillman this offseason, and maybe saving a little less money for a pitcher that could be a bigger unknown at Camden Yards.