Though no decision has been announced on the status of struggling Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman, it seems highly likely that he will be moved out of the club's starting rotation and into the bullpen.
Manager Buck Showalter would not definitively say that during his pregame press briefing Friday afternoon, but everything he said seemed to point in that direction.
The Orioles cannot put Tillman on the disabled list because he says his shoulder is sound. They are not going to designate him for assignment and let him go, because he has done too much for the organization to be thrown aside that way.
That leaves the team with two options — send him back out for another start next week in Anaheim, Calif., or send him to the bullpen to continue working to improve the command of his pitches.
"I talked to Chris some today to try to get some feedback from him — what he's feeling … what he's thinking," Showalter said. "I always try to talk to guys when they've had a couple of starts that haven't been what they're capable of. Nobody understands it more than Chris. It's been frustrating for him. He's had like 15 starts and it's very uncharacteristic."
Though it might seem logical to point to the shoulder injury that lingered from last August through the first month of this season, Tillman has not reported any discomfort and Showalter said the disabled list is not an option.
"What would the indicators be?" Showalter said. "He's throwing the ball harder than he has in the last two or three years. He's throwing the ball 92-94 last night."
Tillman gave up seven runs (five earned) in Thursday night's two-plus-inning appearance and suffered the loss, which dropped his record to 1-7 and raised his ERA to 8.10. He's not the only Orioles pitcher to go through an ugly stretch this season, but with the team finally having some other options, the move to the bullpen clearly is the best option.
"I think we're leaning toward one way more than another, but we're not quite there yet," Showalter said.
The deal that brought starter Jeremy Hellickson from the Philadelphia Phillies gave the Orioles six possible starting pitchers and the six-inning, one-hit relief performance by 22-year-old Miguel Castro put him in a position to move right into Tillman's slot if that's what Showalter decides to do.
"He has certainly earned the right to stay here and not be sent out because we need a pitcher, as I said [Thursday] night," Showalter said. "He certainly presented himself as an option to start down the road. That's the way we've always looked at him."
Tillman was headed for a 20-win season last year when his shoulder gave way. He finished with 16 victories and might've been in position to attract a rich deal in free agency after this season if the soreness had not returned in December, forcing him to miss all of spring training.
He had a string of three solid starts that stretched from the final day of June through mid-July, but has given up 13 earned runs in just 6 1/3 innings in his past two games. Thursday's brief performance looked like it might be saved by the triple play that got him out of the second inning with the game still close, but the frustration continued to build as the game got out of hand before he could get an out in the third.
"It's killing me right now," Tillman said after the game. "It really is. But you can't dwell on that. You've got to take the positives and run with it. I saw a lot tonight, I know the scoreboard won't show it and most people wont see it, but there were a lot of good things that happened tonight. And if you're going to take anything good away from this, that was a pretty horrible start and we almost came back and won that game."
Showalter has faced similar situations with Ubaldo Jiménez, Wade Miley and Kevin Gausman, and kept them in the rotation. But it's getting late in the season and the Orioles finally have some alternatives. They also can hold out hope that Tillman figures something out in the bullpen and works his way back into the rotation the way Jiménez has done during his time with the Orioles.