Tillman injury casts a dark cloud over the future
On Monday, pitchers and catchers reported to Sarasota, Florida to begin Orioles Spring Training. This is always a phrase that is music to the ears of baseball fans. We are starting to approach the end of winter, which means warmer temperatures and baseball will soon be here. For the Orioles, they bring a team into Spring Training that is very much like the teams we have seen since 2012. In that time frame, the Orioles have not had a losing season, have gone to the playoffs 3 times and advanced to the ALCS once. Last year was no exception, as we saw them lose in the 1 game playoff to the Blue Jays on an Edwin Encarnacion homer. That has left the Orioles and its fans with a sour taste in our mouth’s for the last 5 months, and anxious to start anew.
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With the all the enthusiasm surrounding the start of Spring Training, the Orioles received some terrible news right off the bat. Chris Tillman will likely start the season on the DL. He had a PRP injection back in December and the issue hasn’t healed itself. This is an even larger concern because Tillman spent time on the DL towards the end of last year with some soreness in that shoulder. I have to believe the Orioles have been smart enough to give him an MRI and they are not seeing any structural damage. Tillman also believes that he will be back soon after the season starts and that this isn’t a huge deal. Still, the fact that the pain that caused him to get the shot is the same pain he felt in August isn’t a good sign. So, how does this effect the Orioles and Tillman? There are many different angles here to explore.
First of all, on the field it effects the team immensely. If he only misses a few starts, it won’t likely matter much in the long term of a 162 game season. However, what if he misses more than that? What if he comes back and feels good to pitch but he struggles for a while? I don’t think its unfair to think we won’t get the Chris Tillman this team needs him to be until sometime in May, if even then. He may be out there pitching but like we saw last year after he came back, he may struggle for a few starts, especially since this is the beginning of the season and it will impact his routine in getting ready for a season. In the 2016 season, Tillman was given some extra days off in August and when he came back (9 days in between starts), he had a poor start vs Houston. He then went on the DL. When he got back, he did have a good start vs Detroit. He threw 6 IP and gave up 1 run, allowed 5 base runners and struck out 4. But after that, he struggled. Including the playoff game, he threw 17.1 innings over 4 starts. He struck out 14, walked 8, gave up 2 homers and 10 runs (9 ER). If he does that, he will keep the O’s in games but it will mean the offensive will be in positions where they have to score 4+ runs a game to have a chance to win those games. If that’s all the O’s get out of him for a while, this injury could really set the team back.
There is no way to get around the weaknesses of this team. The rotation is one of them. I have believed that the ’17 rotation will be an improvement over last year, but the issues with this rotation are 1) Limited upside, and 2) Question marks remain. Tillman was the one guy you could look at and feel you know what you are going to get. Gausman is close in that regards. I think we know that Gausman will be good but the question is how good? Will he be the pitcher that had an ERA just above 3 after the AS break or will he be the guy that struggles with the homers and is closer to a 4 ERA pitcher? Everyone else in the rotation is a complete mystery. Whether it is injury issues, inexperience or inconsistency, some or all of those issues plague Dylan Bundy, Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez, the 3 pitchers who figure to round out the rotation. The other issue this team has in the rotation is depth. They have none. They made a trade for Gabriel Ynoa, who appears to be a guy that has a chance to help them but he isn’t someone you want to rely on. Same goes for a guy like Verrett. The upsetting thing about this is that the Orioles knew Tillman had this injection. They knew he was struggling to get better and yet they still didn’t really address the issue of depth. For example, you have a team in the Dodgers that have 6 guys vying for 3 rotation spots. They have had a need in the bullpen and they have a talented young arm in Alex Wood, who may not have much of a job for them. Sending them a guy like Brach for Wood (would be great to expand the deal to get Puig) makes a lot of sense for each side. And even if that deal wouldn’t work, there could be something worked out with them or some other team to add some solid depth. Instead, Dan Duquette heads to his trusty dumpster and finds a potentially capable guy for the short term but again, not someone you want to rely on. It’s very frustrating when you have an obvious weakness, a weakness that has gotten a lot worse and you don’t do anything to address it, especially when you are in a win now mode. I am not asking them to go out and spend big money on someone. Just add someone of quality.
Travis Wood was sitting out there for a while. Here is a guy that has had some good numbers in the majors, both as a reliever and a starter. Since 2012, the best OPS lefties have put up against him in any season is 614. So, he could have been a starter or a lefty reliever for you. You also let Vance Worley go to DC, where he is making next to nothing by the standards of today. Worley isn’t great but he is a guy that has had decent success as a starter and was a solid reliever for Baltimore last year. It just boggles my mind that you let these types of guy’s slip through your fingers, when the depth issue is so obvious. The lack of depth in the O’s rotation really hurt the team early on last year. Having to pitch guys like Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson while Gallardo and Gausman were hurt last year definitely effected this team early in the season. So, what did the Orioles do about that weakness? Nothing. In fact, they made it worse by letting Worley go. Suffice it to say, the Orioles need Tillman back ASAP and they need him totally recovered very quickly.
The other issue this brings to the table is an extension for Tillman. I have been on the record saying I am not for signing him but to me, this shoulder issue cements that. In 2013 and 2014, Tillman threw 206+ innings. The last 2 years, he has thrown 173 and 172 innings, respectively. The difference in the 2 years was really just few starts. Tillman isn’t a guy that you can call an innings eater per say. By that I mean, he averages close to 6 IP (btw, it is down from that number the last 2 years) a start. While not terrible, its not great either. His best quality is durability. The fact that he has thrown 30+ starts the last 4 years allows him to throw a good number of innings but he’s not a guy that you can give the ball too and expect him to get you into the 7th inning most nights. So, if you are dealing with a guy whose best attribute is durability and he is all of a sudden experiencing the same shoulder issues (which is the tougher injury to come back from if it gets more severe, compared to the elbow), would you want to give that guy 4 or 5 years and close to 20M per season, especially as he enters the traditional decline years for a MLB player? We have heard some talk that the Orioles have approached him but I don’t see how you can. I advocated for him to be traded this off-season because I don’t want to see that long-term contract signed, and to lose him for nothing would hurt. The fact that you kept him because you want to win now is fine and it definitely has merit; but I can’t justify the idea of that type of contract, even before this new news.
How this all plays out is the story of the early part of the season. How does he respond to throwing in Spring Training? How quickly can he pitch in meaningful games and how quickly can he be back to being the Tillman we thought he would be? What will his velocity and stuff be like? This also goes back to the extension question. Will he be back to the pitcher who was averaging close to 92 MPH on his fastball the last 2 years or will he be the guy who struggles to break 90? What will his off-speed pitches be like? Will this shoulder injury effect his curveball? Maybe he has to become more of a changeup pitcher. If so, can he make that a more consistent pitch? It’s a lot of questions to ponder and unfortunately, I think it will be at least a month into the season before we can really start to answer these questions. If we happen to get lucky and he gets back quickly and is successful early on, you will still have your fingers crossed throughout the year that he will stay healthy and if he doesn’t, we will know that we have very little help behind him.
Teams can get by with 3-4 good starters. The Orioles could end up being fine. If Gausman continues to be what he was at the end of last year, Bundy stays healthy and progresses and at least 1 of the 2 vets finds some consistency, the bullpen will be able to take over a lot the other games and give this team a chance to win. But if we don’t have the real Tillman and 2 or more of the other 4 starters struggle, we may see this team dumping pieces in July, which wouldn’t necessarily be horrible – but its obviously a much different feeling that we have had here in Baltimore since 2012.