The Orioles — a team long hesitant to compete through free agency for big-ticket starting pitchers — needed to add a low-cost, low-risk rotation piece, and Tillman wanted the opportunity to rebound from the worst season in a career otherwise defined by its consistency.
Tillman will now return to the Orioles starting rotation, agreeing to terms on a one-year, major-league deal Monday, according to an industry source, that will give the 30-year-old the opportunity to rebuild his resume after an unsteady season that left him unsigned going into spring training. Tillman will receive a low base salary of $3 million, but with incentives based on innings, he can make up to $10 million, which is just $50,000 less than what he made last season in his final season before free agency. After seeing several free-agent pitchers settle for minor league deals in recent days, garnering a major league contract from the Orioles was a victory.
Ultimately, comfort was a big factor in the reunion. And if Tillman pitches well — and rebounds from a historically horrible 2017 season — both sides will win. The Orioles would get consistency and innings from the pitcher who anchored their starting rotation, made three Opening Day starts and provided valuable leadership for the next wave of pitchers. And Tillman would jump back into the free-agent market next year primed for a big payday.
The Orioles allowed Tillman to work out at the Ed Smith Stadium facility in Sarasota — where he owns a home — in the offseason, and they saw enough signals that he could find his past form.
“[Looked] good … real good, better than he did last year at this time,” manager Buck Showalter said without specifically confirming that Tillman had agreed to terms. “I think he’s got the chance to pitch well for somebody this year. … A lot of the challenges he had last year — this time last year — aren’t there. Somebody’s going to reap the benefits.”
After arriving to spring training with just two spots in their starting rotation — right-handers Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy — set, Tillman is the second free-agent to join the team this week. The Orioles signed right-hander Andrew Cashner to a two-year deal Friday, guaranteeing him $16 million.
“It’s crazy how things work out I guess like that,” Bundy said. “We were holding on to hope and we got Tilly back. We added Cashner. Things are looking up right now.”
Said Gausman: “It’s huge. When we got Cashner, the first thing I thought was, ‘OK, let’s go get Tilly. Get him back here and we’ll be ready to go.’
Executive vice president Dan Duquette said Monday that the club was still assessing other free-agent starting pitching possibilities. “We’re still in,” he said.
The Orioles starting rotation last season had a 5.70 ERA that was the worst in the majors and the second worst of any team in the past decade (the 2012 Colorado Rockies rotation had a 5.81 ERA).
Tillman went through the offseason having fielded few offers. The Orioles were always in discussion, but the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers were also interested, with Tillman throwing for the Tigers on Saturday.
Not only was Tillman’s 7.84 ERA the highest of any pitcher making more than 15 starts last season, but he was also one of just four pitchers since the beginning of the expansion era in 1969 with an ERA of 7.50 or higher and 90 or more innings. Still, the Orioles considered it worth taking the chance that Tillman would bounce back. The only obstacle was coming to an agreement on a deal.
The move to bring Tillman back is the latest of a recent string of instances in which the Orioles retained their own free agents. Two offseasons ago, the team spent unprecedented money to keep first baseman Chris Davis and reliever Darren O’Day, and last offseason, the Orioles reupped with Mark Trumbo on a three-year deal.
Orioles players didn’t find out that Tillman had agreed to terms until midway through their first full-squad spring training workout on the back fields of the Ed Smith Stadium complex. And when they returned to the clubhouse at the end of the workout, they found Tillman there.
“As soon as we found out the news, we were obviously excited,” Bundy said. “Me and Gaus found out kind of together. We got here and he was in there in the clubhouse, so it was fun to see him again. … It’s awesome. He’s one of our veteran leaders, and he’s led this clubhouse for years, and he’s a friendly face to see and hear. We’re really excited to have him back.
Tillman’s struggles began near the end of the 2016 season when he landed on the disabled list with a shoulder injury — the first time an arm injury sidelined him as a major leaguer. That offseason, he experienced shoulder discomfort again, something that slowed his spring training and prompted him to miss the first month of the regular season. Once he returned, Tillman wasn’t the same. Throughout his struggles, he insisted he was healthy, something that ultimately hurt his market value this offseason because if he wasn’t hurt, there were few clear explanations why he pitched so poorly.
Though his 2017 season was uncharacteristically poor, Tillman had previously long been the anchor of the starting rotation. Over a four-year span before last season, Tillman averaged 32 starts and 190 innings and had a 3.91 ERA, averages that only five other pitchers — Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, Jon Lester, David Price and Jose Quintana — met from 2013 to 2016.
Overall, Tillman has had far more success than setbacks with the Orioles. After joining the rotation full time in the middle of 2012, he became the team’s most consistent and durable starter through 2016. The possibility of a bounce-back season seemed worth the risk for the Orioles, and the biggest obstacle was finding a base salary the club was comfortable with that would enable them to cut ties if Tillman is the same pitcher as last year.
If Tillman is able to regain his form, he could cash in on a lucrative multiyear deal next offseason. He would also likely be saying farewell to the Orioles, who are hesitant to invest long-term commitments to free-agent starters.
Even though it’s a short-term fix, the Orioles entered camp in desperate need of proven starters — just 10 of their 36 pitchers in big league camp entering Monday have made a major league start — the return of Tillman makes sense, especially if the Orioles are convinced that he will be healthy again.
“I saw Tilly throw a couple days before camp here and he looked like his old self,” Gausman said. “The ball was coming out well. He had that good angle, and obviously they saw something they liked, too. He’s a guy, when he’s healthy, you can bank on him being a 200-inning guy and giving you really good innings. In the American League and in the AL East, those things are very valuable. It’s not only that, but what he brings to the team, a guy who’s been here a long time, started I think [three] Opening Days for us. That track record of being in the American League East is definitely good. Yeah we were all very excited to hear he’s coming back.”
Though Tillman never blamed blamed his struggles for anything physical — even though diminished velocity and an uncharacteristic lack of control suggested otherwise — both sides hope a healthy offseason void of physical ailments will be the first step back to success. In fact, Tillman adjusted his preparation for the season this year, starting his offseason routine earlier than the previous two years. In part, he was able to do that because he felt healthier and stronger. Last offseason, shoulder discomfort during one of his first throwing sessions limited his preparation for the season.
“We know what Tillman is capable of,” O’Day said. “I think it’s a great move. Having been through seasons that were compromised by injuries whether we admit it or not, it takes awhile to get back to yourself. If we get a Tillman of previous years, we are going to be a lot stronger than we thought. It’s really exciting. Andrew [Cashner] is a great addition, just got to meet him. It’s exciting to add guys, guess we are accustomed to adding guys this time of year. It’s always good to bring in reinforcements and give yourself a better chance to compete.”