Orioles' beat writer Eduardo A. Encina and columnist Peter Schmuck on the injury to Orioles starting pitcher Chris Tillman. (Baltimore Sun video)
SARASOTA, FLA. — Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman won't extend his string of three straight Opening Day starts because of lingering shoulder problems.
Manager Buck Showalter announced the news following the team's first pitchers and catchers workout of spring training Tuesday, but the club hopes to have its ace ready to return shortly after the Orioles open the season on April 3 against the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards.
"I've got high hopes that we get this resolved and he pitches all year for us," Showalter said.
Tillman -- who went on the disabled list last August with right shoulder inflammation, going 21 days between starts -- contacted the Orioles in December concerned that his offseason throwing program wasn't progressing well. Shortly thereafter, he received a platelet rich plasma injection in his shoulder that put his schedule behind by three weeks.
Showalter remained optimistic but realistic about gauging Tillman's timetable to return. He could potentially return in the season's first week, but because the Orioles have three days off in the season's first eight days, they don't need a fifth starter until April 15.
"We're going to make sure we get it right," Showalter said. "This is as fast as we feel comfortable going safely. … Any setback in the schedule would make us have to [adjust]. If he misses a side day or anything, it's pretty tight. … We've got it mapped out where he'll be one of our five starters to start the season, but right now, Opening Day he probably won't be an option."
Tillman has started the past three Orioles season openers, and would have tied Jim Palmer's club record for consecutive Opening Day starts with four had he pitched the first game this year.
Tillman, who is entering his final season before free agency, has a strong record of durability, averaging 32 starts, 190 innings and 14 wins over the past four seasons. Tillman's late-season stint on the DL in 2016 marked his first since he opened 2013 recovering from a left abdominal strain.
"He managed it real well when we rested him," Showalter said. "Then when he cranked it up back this offseason, it wasn't responding like he wanted it to. I wish we could have caught it a little earlier, but he came to us. A guy in Chris' situation, knowing Chris like we know him, when he complains about anything or just brings it to our attention, you know it's something that you should probably address."
Any prolonged loss of Tillman would test the team's starting pitching depth. The Orioles entered the offseason with six starters for five rotation spots, but traded right-hander Yovani Gallardo to the Seattle Mariners on Jan. 6 in exchange for left-handed-hitting outfielder Seth Smith. They acquired right-handers Logan Verrett and Gabriel Ynoa in low-cost trades with the New York Mets to address that depth problem, and hope Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson can be more dependable starters if needed. The club could also dip into the free-agent market for additional starting pitching help
"That's why depth is important, but it doesn't necessarily open up a spot," Showalter said "… You could potentially backdate it and carry an extra guy. I'm going to look at that in the next few days."
Tillman went 16-6 with a 3.77 ERA in 30 starts last season, winning 14 of his first 16 decisions. He had a mid-August start pushed back three days after experiencing shoulder discomfort, and pitching on eight days' rest, he lasted just two innings, allowing six runs and 12 base runners on Aug. 20 before landing on the DL three days later. After returning, he posted a 3.79 ERA in his final four starts, but went six innings just once in that span.
"There were some things that at a point in the season that he was working his way through," Showalter said. "He was pretty good toward the end as I understand it."
If Tillman remains on the Orioles' active roster to open the season, he could return as soon as the third game of the season, on April 7, but he would be limited to 75 pitches. However, if the Orioles believe Tillman needs more time, he could be placed on the new 10-day disabled list to open the season, a move that would be backdated to March 30, and be eligible to return on April 9.
"It happens a lot of times," Showalter said. "These guys start throwing again and they all go through some discomfort early on. It's cranky. He was probably saying, 'This will go away,' and it didn't, and, 'You know what, I'm going to talk to Richie about this and see.'"
Tillman was a limited participant in pitchers' fielding practice drills Tuesday, but was not available to the media after the workout. Showalter said Tillman isn't expected to participate in full pitchers' fielding practice drills until March 3, wouldn't have his first simulated game until March 14 or pitch in his first exhibition game until March 17.
Last year, right-hander Kevin Gausman opened the season on the DL with right shoulder tendinitis, but made 30 starts and tossed a career-high 179 2/3 innings. Gausman, who posted a 2.83 ERA over his final 12 starts last season, appears to be the front runner to start Opening Day.