Chris Tillman doesn’t want to hear about the opportunity — and the money — that has been lost during the most discouraging season of his career. And he certainly isn’t looking for sympathy.
“I don’t need anyone to feel bad for me,” he said as he pondered the possibility that these are his final days in an Orioles uniform. “It’s no one’s fault but mine.”
There’s really no reason to assign blame to anyone. Tillman was the Orioles’ top starting pitcher throughout the five-year organizational renaissance in which they won more regular-season games than any other American League team. He doesn’t owe anybody an apology for the shoulder problem that kept him from his offseason throwing program and sidelined him for all of spring training.
If anything, he should be cursing the fates because the timing of his competitive fall from grace could not have been worse.
He never reclaimed the delivery that allowed him to win 16 games last year and might have carried him to his first 20-win season if not for the initial bout of shoulder discomfort that cropped up last August. His 1-7 record and 7.66 ERA represents such an outlier performance that it is hard not to wonder just how many good innings are left in that once-dominant right arm.
That’s not a good thing when you’re about to become a free agent and you were once projected to command a huge multiyear contract.
Everybody’s got an opinion, but there is only one that counts. Tillman has steadfastly insisted from the moment he returned to the starting rotation that he is healthy and that his struggles stem from an inability to recreate the mechanics and delivery that made him so successful over the previous five seasons.
By all accounts, the velocity is still there, but his command has been wildly inconsistent. That could mean he’s still hurt or it could mean this is just one of those years where everything just came apart and he couldn’t put it back together again.
“There’s only one way to get out of this,’’ he said. “I’ve been here before. Before 2012, I was god-awful. I was just as bad as I was this year, if not worse. We were able to figure it out. Somehow, some way, we were able to figure it out. Five years later, here we are talking about another bad year. So, I think I’ll be able to work through it, work around it, work under it, work over it. Somehow. Some way. I’ll figure out a way.”
He’ll have the chance to start over this winter. He’ll have a chance to go through a normal offseason and try to figure out what exactly was keeping him from commanding his pitch repertoire. He’ll have time to build up his arm strength, though he continues to insist that is not a problem.
“I don’t think it’s a strength issue by any means,’’ he said. “It’s more of a delivery issue. When I was bad, it was because of my delivery. In 2009, 2010, 2011, I had a horrible delivery. I figured it out. This year, it was the same kind of thing. I never got comfortable and was never in a position where I felt like I could repeat it every single time.”
So, there are two big questions that remain unanswered: Can Tillman rediscover himself? And where will he try to do it?
Clearly, he doesn’t relish the possibility of leaving a clubhouse full of long-time friends and a team that gave him a chance to develop into an All-Star, but he might not have a choice.
“I don’t think there’s any secret about how I feel about the guys in this clubhouse,’’ Tillman said. “Everyone knows how I feel about everyone in here. I mean, that goes all the way around. All our friends here. It’s a place I’m comfortable with and I like being comfortable. Who knows? If that means anything, take that for what it’s worth.”
It probably won’t be the determining factor. The Orioles might be willing to offer him an incentive-laden contract to prove himself again, but it only takes one other team to gamble that last year was a total anomaly and that Tillman is a mechanical adjustment away from being the next Jake Arrieta.
The Orioles have to be growing tired of seeing their pitchers succeed elsewhere, and the going rate for decent starting pitchers is so high that the team might still consider picking up the $12 million option on struggling left-hander Wade Miley. If that’s the case, then it’s fair to ask who’s the bigger gamble.
Tillman was a combined 32 games over .500 in the five seasons leading up to 2017. Somebody might be willing to make that bet if the Orioles don’t.