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Schmuck: Chris Tillman giving cause to be concerned about Orioles rotation

Nobody wants to ponder how the upcoming season will turn out if Chris Tillman goes missing from a starting rotation that was beginning to look like it might bloom into something other than the major weakness of a solid playoff contender.

The Orioles continue to tiptoe through the Chris Tillman situation, and at this point, who can really blame them?

Nobody wants to ponder how the upcoming season will turn out if he goes missing from a starting rotation that was beginning to look like it might bloom into something other than the major weakness of a solid playoff contender.

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Tillman is the cornerstone of that rotation, or he was until shoulder discomfort cropped up again in December and now is threatening to set him back for a big chunk of 2017 … or all of it. Who really knows?

The club is in a wait-and-see mode, which means that everybody is praying that Tillman wakes up in a day or so, the pain is gone and the problem really was just a side effect of an antibiotic instead of a frayed labrum.

That's a remote possibility, but nobody should be fooling themselves. The way Tillman's injury was revealed at the start of spring training and the way it has been cast throughout the course of the past month should tell you the Orioles have always suspected they were dealing with something that could submarine this season.

Manager Buck Showalter said at the outset that there was no wiggle room in Tillman's rehabilitation program and immediately dismissed the possibility of him making his fourth straight Opening Day start.

Showalter also made it known ahead of time that Tillman's most recent bullpen session might determine whether he would be able to rejoin the rotation in mid-April or perhaps much later.

Still, it is the nature of professional sports teams to keep the narrative on the best-case scenario when it comes to significant injuries until proven otherwise, leaving others to connect the dots and speculate about the consequences of the most negative outcome.

The Orioles have no obvious replacement for Tillman and there was some question at the start of spring training why they traded veteran starter Yovani Gallardo to the Seattle Mariners after Tillman had informed them of the shoulder discomfort in December.

There still are some free-agent options and Showalter has been talking up left-handed prospects Chris Lee and Jayson Aquino as possible breakthrough rotation candidates. But the outlook for the Orioles is decidedly dimmer without Tillman for any extended period.

If not for the initial signs of this shoulder problem late last season, Tillman would have had a chance to win 20 games. He was expected to arrive at camp this spring to lead an improving rotation that was set to line up promising starters Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy right behind him.

Instead, the season apparently will start with Gausman at the head of the rotation and the Orioles featuring unpredictable veterans Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez more prominently than originally planned. There are reasons to believe both will be more productive this season than last, but the heightened level of uncertainty makes the annual dire projections of the national analysts and statistical gurus much more plausible.

It's not like the rest of the team is above question. Opening Day is less than three weeks away and Showalter is still trying to figure out who his leadoff hitter will be while he continues to experiment with outfield and designated hitter combinations.

That process actually has been made easier by the absence of the players who are taking part in the World Baseball Classic. There are plenty of openings in the spring lineup to audition the myriad potential reserves who have been brought to major league camp. Though the late arrival of newly re-signed Pedro Alvarez leaves open the possibility that the DH/outfield situation on Opening Day will not look dramatically different from last year's.

Tillman's status has been the consuming topic over the past week, but the overall injury outlook has otherwise improved. Both shortstop J.J. Hardy and closer Zach Britton are back with plenty of time to get ready for the start of the season and the only other potential sidelined regular — outfielder Seth Smith — is day-to-day with a mild hamstring strain.

Still, the old baseball adage applies. The Orioles will only go as far as their pitching takes them and — right now — that remains an open question.

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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