SARASOTA, FLA. — It's pretty hard to find fault with the rotation that carried the Orioles to the American League Championship Series last season, but the perception remains that it lacks a true No. 1 starter.
Chris Tillman doesn't take offense, even though he has filled that role over the past couple of years and has put together numbers comparable to those of other starters widely recognized as "aces."
"It doesn't bother me in the least bit,'' he said Friday. "My job is to make the guys around me better, and I feel like I'm doing my job when that happens. It's important to do the best you can and be 'the ace,' but when we can collectively, as a group, be better than another team, we did it. That's success to me."
Since Tillman landed in the rotation permanently in July 2012, he has made 82 starts and is a combined 38-16 with a 3.42 ERA. For the sake of comparison, the Chicago Cubs signed Jon Lester to a six-year deal worth $155 million this past winter. Since Tillman re-entered the Orioles' starting rotation for good more than two seasons ago, Lester is a combined 35-28 (.556 winning percentage) with a 3.52 ERA.
Want another comparison? James Shields, the veteran starter known as "Big Game James" who just signed a four-year, $75 million contract with San Diego Padres, is 32-22 (.614) with a 3.13 ERA over the same period.
Obviously, Shields has a longer track record and has established himself as a durable guy who pitches a lot of innings. And Lester is a terrific starter who really wasn't himself during the second half of 2012. They are rightfully considered among the top starting pitchers in the game. Tillman isn't quite there yet, but there are very few pitchers who can boast a .704 winning percentage over the past 2 1/2 seasons.
Tillman, like a lot of his teammates, takes a certain perverse pride in being underestimated outside of Baltimore.
"Good. That's just the way we like it,'' he said. "I feel like, every team we go against, if we have a three-game set and I go out the first game and I outpitch my guy, and the next guy outpitches their guy, I feel like we did our job. Give our team a chance to win, get deep in the ballgame and help our bullpen. That's the only way I look at it, and a lot of these guys are on the same page, and that's important."
Maybe Tillman is just a solid No. 2 or No. 3 who has been pushed into the No. 1 slot in an Orioles rotation that lacks a true ace. Time will tell. We can quibble about the semantics, but catcher Matt Wieters, who knows Tillman and the rest of the rotation better than anyone, doesn't care what other people think.
"To me, an ace is a guy who goes out there every fifth game, and you know he's going to give you a good chance to win the game," Wieters said. "And Tillman has done that ever since he's been up. Especially in our division, as competitive as this league is, you better feel like every guy you send out there has a chance to be an ace that night.
"As far as Tillman, his mentality is something that people can't see in the stats. His mentality allows him to go out there and compete against any hitter, go out there and beat any pitcher who's on the mound, and that's what makes him so special."
Wieters says the critics of the Orioles' rotation — the ones who claim it has more depth than quality — aren't looking behind the numbers and seeing what allowed it to tie the Angels for the most wins in the American League and rank fifth in the league in ERA.
"This staff has steadily improved,'' Wieters said. "They come back ready to work. Everybody on the staff wants what's best for everybody else in the clubhouse. It's really nice to be a part of a group of guys who don't care about their personal numbers, don't care if they have to go out to [pitch in] the 'pen. They only care about what's good for the team. That's pretty special."