By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun
7:14 PM EST, February 2, 2012
He was expected to be a key member of the cavalry, the group of young pitchers who were supposed to lead the Orioles back to prominence, or, at the least, to relevance in the American League East.
Some baseball pundits that believed right-hander Chris Tillman would be in the white hat riding the lead horse and directing the rest of the Orioles' heroes toward the ultimate treasure. Tillman was, after all, the youngest of the group and perhaps the most talented.
And he just seemed like an ace, 6 feet 5 and a lean 210 pounds with a wide arsenal of pitches and a sunny, no-problem, Southern California personality.
But there has been a problem. Tillman's big league stints have been a maddening stream of inconsistency, rough outings with high pitch counts clouding the occasional outstanding start. It has made evaluating the 23-year-old that much more frustrating.
"It has been a big issue for me, consistency. I think it comes down to being able to throw all my pitches for strikes. I may have my fastball or curveball but not be able to throw strikes with my other pitches [in a particular game]," said Tillman, who was 3-5 with a 5.52 ERA in 13 starts with the Orioles last season and 3-6 with a 5.19 ERA in 15 starts for Triple-A Norfolk. "Once I get my pitches where they need to be, I can be consistent, not just from at-bat to at-bat, but from game to game."
The question is how many more chances will there be for Tillman?
The Orioles underwent a regime change this offseason, with executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette taking over from club president Andy MacPhail, who made Tillman and Adam Jones the centerpieces of the Erik Bedard trade with the Seattle Mariners in 2008.
This winter, Duquette has brought in at least three potential rotation candidates in Wei-Yin Chen, Tsuyoshi Wada and Dana Eveland as well as veteran Armando Galarraga, who signed a minor league deal. Add them to holdovers Jeremy Guthrie and Tommy Hunter and so-called cavalry members Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz and Brad Bergesen, and Tillman's chances of being a significant part of this organization's future are waning,
But Tillman doesn't consider himself the forgotten man; he just thinks he needs to remind the Orioles what he can do and what made him Baseball America's No. 2 Orioles prospect in 2009 — behind only catcher Matt Wieters.
"I tried to look at [Duquette's moves] as a positive," Tillman said. "They're adding three or four or five guys, and all the talk is on the new guys and all eyes are on them. But we don't look at it like that. Every spring, you have to go in and earn a spot, and I think everybody has to look at it that way and perform your best."
Tillman points to last year, when he really wasn't expected to make the team out of spring training but ended up starting the second game of the season and pitching six hitless innings against the Tampa Bay Rays. Statistically speaking, that was his best big league outing of the year. He ended up being shuttled between the majors and Triple-A, and finished his season with three disappointing starts at Norfolk followed by an organizational decision not to give him a September call-up. He points the finger of blame at himself.
"That taste in my mouth the last year, especially the last two months, was pretty bad. I hope I never have to go through that again. I'm thinking only positives right now," said Tillman, who still has a minor league option remaining. "It only gives you that much more of a kick in the butt to get after it in the offseason."
He spent the winter working out with former Orioles outfielder and new club special assistant Brady Anderson at the University of California-Irvine. He joined pitchers Matusz, Hunter and Rick VandenHurk and outfielder Scott Beerer for the workouts and believes he is stronger and better prepared to compete for a full season.
"It hasn't been easy, but it has been a lot of fun," Tillman said. "We've done a lot of power stuff, and I know I'm definitely in the best shape and the strongest that I've ever been. And mentally, we're in a good spot right now."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said that despite the roster additions, Tillman has not been ruled out of the starting rotation competition.
"I am going into it with an open mind," Showalter said. "One of the things is a lot of the guys we have at this stage have what good pitchers have behind them. They are now at an experience level where they have had success and failure."
Now, he said, it's time for those pitchers — including Tillman — to turn the possibilities into reality.
"We like Chris, he can do some good things with a baseball," Showalter said. "He's got good makeup, and I don't think he is intimidated by the level or the competition. It's just a consistency factor. Can you trust him every fifth day to give you a chance to win? … It's a puzzle to him, too. He wants to know why that inconsistency happens."
Part of it is maturity. Although he has made double-digit starts in the majors in three consecutive seasons, Tillman doesn't turn 24 until April. He is the second-youngest member of the Orioles' 40-man roster, behind only 2011 first-round pick Dylan Bundy, who at 19 has not thrown a professional pitch.
But Tillman isn't buying youth as an excuse for his thus far spotty big league career — and that mentality is one of the reasons the Orioles haven't given up on him even though, Showalter said, other teams have inquired about his availability.
"I've been hearing, 'You are the youngest, this and that,' for years," Tillman said. "I want to put that in the back of my mind because I know I've got to go out and earn a spot."
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