Duquette: Orioles confident Tillman won't sleep on 'pillow' contract opportunity

Even though the Orioles were interested in bringing back right-hander Chris Tillman since the beginning of the offseason, it took until Wednesday morning for the sides to finalize a one-year, $3 million major league deal that carries significant upside for both parties.

Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said Wednesday it took so long because Tillman’s case was so unique. He had been one of the most dependable starters in the American League for most of a five-year span from 2012 to 2016 before a dramatic falloff last season.


Chris Tillman had to stay inside the Orioles spring training complex and out of sight for the past three days. Now, his contract has been finalized and he can get out on the field.

“I’ve never had a player be so good in one year and struggle so much the next year at Chris’ age,” Duquette said. “And I’m sure Chris didn’t see it coming. Certainly our club didn’t see it coming. Our staff didn’t see it coming. You have to find the right balance to that. The volatility of the performance was significant and here’s a contract where Chris can give us the innings and if he pitches well, he can be rewarded and he could go back out on the market.

“Some people call these a ‘pillow contract.’ The important thing for the player is you don’t fall asleep on that pillow contract. You go out and you pitch.”

Tillman can make up to $10 million with performance bonuses based on innings pitched, and if he reaches those totals, he will certainly reap the benefit of a rich multiyear deal when he enters the free-agent market again next offseason.

“I’m real happy that Chris Tillman is back and we got his contract done,” Duquette said. “It took a little bit of work, but we came up with a deal where he can come back and pitch, and hopefully for him and for us, he can return to the form [he had from 2012 to 2016]. And he’s got a good opportunity. We need the veteran leadership that Chris Tillman brought to our clubs from 2012 to 2016.

“Here’s a guy who was a tough pitcher in the division, one of the top starting pitchers in the American League and a very dependable guy. He was on the mound when we went to the playoffs in 2016. At his age, having the benefit of training for the winter, there’s a good chance he can come back and pitch that way.”

Even though the deal holds little risk, the Orioles had to be convinced that Tillman was likely to return to form and that last year, when he posted a 7.84 ERA, was an aberration.

“We like Chris Tillman,” Duquette said. “[We know] because of the other five years that he pitched. We like Chris Tillman. He’s a solid dependable person and he’s been a solid dependable pitcher.”

After re-signing Tillman and adding free-agent right-hander Andrew Cashner, the Orioles now place adding a left-handed-hitting outfielder atop their list of priorities.


That made the team’s corresponding move to add Tillman a little surprising. The club designated outfielder Jaycob Brugman, a left-handed-hitting outfielder who was the team’s only 40-man addition for most of the offseason, for assignment to make roster space for Tillman.

The Orioles continue to pursue free-agent outfielders who bat from the left side, targeting veteran Colby Rasmus on a minor league deal Wednesday. But Duquette said he believed the organizational outfield depth is strong and he’d like to see what some of the young outfielders in camp — such as Austin Hays, DJ Stewart, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander — can do at the big league level.

“Yes, if we can add a left-handed bat to take a look at, that would be helpful,” Duquette said. “I’d like to see what these young kids can do. DJ Stewart is a 20-20 guy. There aren’t too many 20-home runs and 20-stolen base guys knocking on the door to the big leagues, so we can take a look at him. Mullins has some really exciting speed. That would be additive to our ballclub. He’s got the speed to patrol center field. He’s a true center fielder. Those guys I’m sure could use some more experience, but they’re both going to be in the organization and we can take a look at them.”

The Orioles could be closing in on a deal with the veteran outfielder in the coming days.

With veteran left-handers Jason Vargas and Jaime García finding homes, there aren’t many free-agent left-handed starter left available – Francisco Liriano is the only remaining lefty with starting experience, but the club sees him more as a reliever. So, Duquette said he’s intrigued by seeing left-hander Nestor Cortes Jr. compete for a rotation spot and likes some left-handed minor leaguers moving through the lower levels of the organization who he said have garnered trade interest.

“I think there’s only one left-hander on the market that has major league experience,” Duquette said. “So, I’d like to take a look at some of the guys we’ve got. I’d like to take a look at [Keegan] Akin … see how he looks … see how [Alex] Wells looks in the spring … see how [Zac] Lowther looks. The other clubs tell us they like them a lot.

“Yeah, there’s some other areas on the club that we need to continue to try to address. We do have pretty good depth of talent in our farm system. Since I’ve been here, we haven’t had as many prospects recognized by the national publications and the other clubs in trade discussions, so that’s a good sign and that will help us fill some of those needs that we have for the club, but we continue to look for starting pitching. We continue to look for left-handed hitting. We’re going to need some more depth in our infield, especially our middle infield. I do like the depth of our outfield. I think we probably have as much depth there as any other of our positions. And our pitching staff, we have to come up with some solutions to our pitching staff so that we can pitch competitively this year.”