SARASOTA, FLA. — Most of the Orioles' returning veteran players already had nameplates on their lockers in Ed Smith Stadium home clubhouse this week while the annual January minicamp took place.
And most of those lockers were empty, the exception being right-hander Chris Tillman, whose presence in Sarasota this week was revealed by the two fishing poles that were placed in his locker.
It is no secret that Tillman – who now has a home in Sarasota – likes to fish in the pond on the grounds of the Ed Smith complex, and according to manager Buck Showalter, he's not the only one fishing around there. There's a rumor that a few otters have made a home at the pond, so Tillman might find competition for a bite.
But the fact that Tillman was there this week – he came wearing an impressive offseason beard that he will have to shave come spring training, per club rules – is more than about fishing.
It shows how invested Tillman is and has been in the Orioles' success.
On the two days pitchers threw bullpen sessions this week, Tillman was there to watch them. That's nothing new. During spring training, he's often one to stick around and watch others throw, and he can tell you about the first time he saw Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman or Hunter Harvey throw bullpen sessions.
Even though he's only 28, Tillman is the leader of the Orioles starting rotation. Bundy and Gausman will both tell you that Tillman guided them through growing pains, and there's a reason why the next up-and-coming arm in spring training camp usually has his locker placed next to Tillman's.
Last season, Tillman got off to a strong start that probably should have earned him a trip to the All-Star Game before a shoulder injury slowed him in the second half. But he still won a team-high 16 games, and he remained the club's most consistent starter over the past four seasons.
"He likes baseball," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "There's a confidence in what he can do. He doesn't look at them as competition for his job, even though he respects that. He looks at it as, 'Let me look at these guys who might help us win more games this year.' That's why he likes watching. And he likes talking baseball and pitching. And also, the mounds are closer to that pond back there."
Pretty soon, the Orioles will have to show how interested they are in investing in Tillman for the long haul. Tillman can become a free agent at the end of the 2017 season and be a part of a starting pitcher market that is set to include former teammate Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Alex Cobb and Kansas City Royals left-hander Danny Duffy.
The Orioles opened extension talks with Tillman's representatives at the winter meetings last month, but the dialogue was preliminary. If the Orioles are truly interested in retaining Tillman beyond this season, this is likely the best time for that discussion to move forward. The deadline for teams and players to exchange arbitration figures is Friday, and this is usually when real extension talks begin taking place.
There seems to be a finite extension window. Once spring training ends, teams and players usually cease extension talks. The recent exception was shortstop J.J. Hardy, who signed a three-year extension during the 2014 postseason.
But if Tillman reaches free agency, history indicates he isn't likely to return. Tillman will be 29 next offseason, and if he continues to pitch as he has, he'd be looking at a four-year deal at the least. The Orioles have only signed one free-agent pitcher to a four-year deal – Ubaldo Jimenez for $50 million before the 2014 season.
Even if the Orioles are willing to give Tillman a four-year deal, his resume would likely demand a larger monetary figure.
Tillman is projected to make $10.6 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility. If that projection proves accurate, he will have made more than $21 million over his three arbitration seasons.
That's good money, but more impressive free-agent riches are ahead for him if he tests the market.
Having said that, the Orioles have done a good job of keeping their own players, raising payroll to retain Chris Davis and Darren O'Day long term.
And Tillman has been the model of consistency for the Orioles. Though there's no statistical qualifier, the Orioles should take into consideration his value as a leader on and off the field.
Still, all signs point to Tillman pitching out his contract year with the potential of free-agency riches on the line. That situation is always a cause for concern because it can serve as a distraction. In Bud Norris' walk year in 2015, he imploded after a 15-win season and was forced to settle for a $2.5 million deal.
Tillman's makeup suggests that shouldn't be a problem. He has been good at blocking out the noise around him on the mound, and most times he has been the one starter the Orioles could count on to bring them out of a funk.
"We're all pending free agency in a lot of walks of life," Showalter said. "… First of all, if you know Chris and his personality and his makeup. … This a guy who is playing this game, yeah [money] is a great byproduct of it, but I think Chris' biggest thing is getting ready to pitch for the Baltimore Orioles and contribute to win, and the rest of it will take care of itself."