Chris Tillman entered the offseason hoping the right shoulder injury that resulted in a rare trip to the disabled list for three weeks late last season was behind him. But when the Orioles ace felt discomfort in his shoulder in mid-December, his attention immediately turned to ensuring he could resolve the problem before it lingered into 2017.
This year’s extended spring training — a result of the World Baseball Classic — will give him more time. But the Orioles’ timetable for Tillman’s return after a platelet-rich-plasma injection projects that he will be unable to make a fourth consecutive Opening Day start on April 3 against the Toronto Blue Jays; instead having him return to the rotation shortly thereafter.
The injection, which Tillman received in late December, pushed his offseason preparation back three weeks. Even if it meant the start of his season would be delayed, he had the shot because he wanted to open his year with the peace of mind that he was healthy going into the season.
“It didn’t feel right,” Tillman said before Wednesday’s spring training workout. “Every pitcher in here, there’s probably something clinical. And you can read into that or you don’t. I just wanted to get it behind us and do it the right way. I think that’s why we’re taking our time with it. We could go much faster, which would probably be the wrong way to do it. We sat down and we want to do it right and get this thing in the rear-view mirror.
“It never really bothered me. It just never felt how I would want it to in the offseason. I took the option of rest at the end of the season. It got better. It got much better. I wanted it to feel perfect.”
Tillman began his rehabilitation in Sarasota — where he owns a home in the offseason — three weeks after the injection, and Tuesday’s workout marked the “fourth or fifth” time he has played light catch.
“It’s gone really well,” Tillman said. “It’s feeling strong, it’s feeling better, but you’ve got to do it right. I don’t want to do it wrong and just say, ‘I’m going to go out there. I’m feeling better.’ I want to do it the right way and get it behind us. That way, it’s not an issue going forward.
“There’s a lot of hurdles to get over. I think most of them are mental. ... I’ve talked to many doctors in the last couple months and they are all optimistic and all positive. … I want to do it right. I’m not going to rush it out there just to get out there and have two more starts.”
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said the forethought Tillman showed in addressing the shoulder early is an example of the pitcher’s maturity over the past four years as he became the club’s most consistent starter and a valued rotation leader.
“I think he trusts us and knows us,” Showalter said. “A lot of guys don’t feel comfortable coming to somebody and saying that. They just [think], ‘Oh, that will go away. I’ll work through it,’ and all of a sudden it’s April 1 and we’ve got a problem. Then the team has a problem and that’s all you need to know about Chris.
“The biggest thing he wants is to be there for his team, regardless of what it might mean for him. If you know Chris, he’s the kind of guy who says, ‘If things ended today, I’m a real lucky guy and I’m in great shape for the rest of my life.’ So the team doing well and [him] being a contributor is a driving force for him doing what he’s doing. I’ve found through the years that those guys really get a return for having that type of approach.”
Tillman said the feeling in his shoulder was comparable to the shoulder inflammation that landed him on the disabled list for three weeks in late August and early September last year, his first stint on the DL since 2013.
“It was similar, but what I was feeling in August, I was pitching,” Tillman said. “In the offseason, I wasn't doing much. I was letting it rest and do day-to-day stuff. Not that it was hurting in the offseason. I could have pitched in the offseason; just that I’ve never pitched with really any problems before and I want to get this normal for me.
“The whole thing in the offseason is that I hadn’t picked up a ball yet. I wanted to feel real good before I did. I’ve been throwing here recently, and I’m going to throw again today [Wednesday]. It’s been feeling real good throwing, and it’s getting stronger, and it’s feeling better every day. I haven’t really felt it much. It’s definitely much, much better than when I was sitting at home not doing much.”
Tillman has been the club’s most consistent starting pitcher and the rotation’s workhorse for the past four seasons, averaging 32 starts, 190 innings and 14 wins. Over that span, he ranks 12th among American League starting pitchers with 11.7 wins above replacement (WAR).
This will be also Tillman’s final season before reaching free agency and he would be one of the top starting pitchers on the market next offseason with a strong showing.
“That’s what I mean by [when] I say I want to do this right,” Tillman said. “I don’t want to rush just to try to have a good year this year to set something up. I want to do this right. No matter how long it takes, I want to get this behind me and not rush back into it. The urge is definitely there to go out and throw every day and do the [pitchers’ fielding practice] because I feel like I can, but I want to do it right.”
The Orioles were 22-8 in games started by Tillman last season, and he won 14 of his first 16 decisions last year, going 14-2 with a 3.18 ERA over his first 21 starts. He ended that by posting a 1.29 ERA during a four-start span in which he allowed just four runs over 28 innings.
But after Tillman’s fourth straight seven-inning, one-run start on July 21 at Yankee Stadium, something went awry. He posted a 5.44 ERA over his final nine starts of the season, a span that included his three-week DL stint. Tillman allowed a .291 batting average and an .841 OPS during that season-ending stretch. He also started the AL wild-card game loss, but was pulled after just 74 pitches over 4 1/3 innings with the game tied at 2.
“I think there’s a big adjustment that I had to make to feel good to pitch,” Tillman said about pitching through the end of the season. “I was able to pitch, I really was. It was just the bullpen and I had to take it a little differently, take a different mindset. Getting ready to throw was a little different, but I was fine to pitch and I think I’ll be fine to pitch when the lights turn on. It’s just getting it strong enough and healthy enough to where I don’t want to have to worry about it. I want to get it behind us.”
Tillman left the door for Opening Day slightly open, but said he would see the greater goal if he was unable to start a fourth straight season opener on April 3 against the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards.
“I think it’s always a disappointment, but I kind of have a good feeling for where this thing is at right now,” Tillman said. “I wouldn’t be hugely disappointed at this point because I want to do it the right way. I think if we were to stick to a strict schedule, I don’t think that would put [Opening Day] there. The whole back end of our schedule is in pencil. This stuff right now is in pen. We’re going to stick to it. The back end of it is not written in pen, yet.”
Showalter said he’d like to avoid placing Tillman on the DL to open the season because then he wouldn’t be eligible to return until April 9. The fact that the Orioles have three days off over the first eight days of the season means Showalter won’t need a fifth starter until April 15, so the team could still carry Tillman on the Opening Day roster if he’s close.
“We might do that and still have him available to be one of the first five pitchers, which allows some flexibility with the roster to start the season,” Showalter said. “ … We’re just trying to build up the arm strength to put him back on the schedule he would have been on if he had been if he didn’t take those two or three weeks off.”