Orioles manager Buck Showalter talks about signing pitcher Chris Tillman. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
SARASOTA, FLA. — Chris Tillman spent three days reduced to the role of spectator, watching the Orioles’ spring training workouts from the complex’s weight room, waiting for his reunion with the team to become official.
Tillman had already done enough waiting, trying to practice patience through a slow-moving offseason in which he received little interest as he came off his worst year in the major leagues. But on Wednesday, he could finally get back to where he’s been most comfortable as a major leaguer — wearing an Orioles uniform.
His one-year, $3 million major league deal finally complete, Tillman participated in his first workout of spring training alongside many of the same familiar faces he shared a dugout with over his nine-year Orioles career.
“It is a relief,” Tillman said. “I’ve been stuck inside looking out the windows for the last three days, so it feels good to finally be able to join the team and get out and get my feet under me. … It was tough [waiting through the offseason], but it was tough on everybody. I was in contact with most of the guys that we know are still waiting, and it was tough. But there’s only so much you can control and that’s all I really focused on. I can control what I’m going to do every day and the way I prepare, and that’s what I did.”
Tillman can make up to $10 million in 2018 if he meets all of his performance incentives, which would be just $50,000 less than what he earned in 2017 in his final year of arbitration eligibility after developing into one of the American League’s most consistent starting pitchers. But few pitchers in recent history experienced as difficult a season as Tillman did in 2017 — his 7.84 ERA was the second highest of any pitcher logging at least 90 innings in the expansion era dating to 1969.
“I’ve never had a player be so good in one year and struggle so much the next year at Chris’ age,” Orioles executive vice president Dan 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.
“We like Chris Tillman. … [We know he can come back] 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.”
And even though Tillman, 29, spent the offseason waiting to find a team, it was the work he did during the winter and the Orioles’ role in it that was the most instrumental factor in his returning to the club.
Because Tillman’s season marked such a regression from his previous track record, teams were put off, which hurt his free-agent stock. Tillman, a Southern California native who moved to Sarasota a few years ago, was invited to work out at the Ed Smith Stadium complex in the offseason.
That allowed the Orioles to see that Tillman was having a productive, and most importantly normal offseason.
Last offseason, he had to shut down his throwing routine in December because he felt the same discomfort in his shoulder that landed him on the disabled list in August 2016. He received a platelet-rich plasma injection and when he resumed his throwing program during spring training last year, he suffered a setback that forced him to slow down. He didn’t pitch in a major league game until May, and when he was back, he wasn’t the same pitcher who averaged 14 wins, 32 starts, 190 innings and a 3.91 ERA over the previous four seasons.
“Everything [went wrong],” Tillman said. “There wasn’t a whole lot that went right, beginning in the offseason. I think that’s a huge part of it for a starting pitcher is the preparation in the offseason to make 30 starts and to feel strong and confident with what you’re bringing to the table for the team. I was a little bit behind last year based on the circumstances.
“I’ve been throwing for three months now, where I just started picking up the ball last year, so I feel pretty confident with where I’m at. I feel good with where I’m at right now. I really do. Just based off of what I’ve been able to do this offseason, and I think with most injuries, whether it’s a hangnail or whether it’s a surgery, I think 90 percent of it is mental. There’s a huge hurdle that you have to get over, and I don’t feel like I was in a bad place last year, but I fell behind where I normally am. Being me, I felt like I could work through just about anything, but I was told by a lot of people it’s going to take a while to feel like yourself again.”
Tillman said the Orioles always were the team he wanted to rejoin. He said vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson, one of Tillman’s biggest longtime supporters, called him the day the season ended, and manager Buck Showalter kept an open dialogue throughout the offseason that let him know he was wanted.
“There was a constant line of communication and it makes you feel like they really care and they want you, and it’s the place I wanted to be,” Tillman said. “To tell you the truth, this is the only place where they know what I was capable of and what I’ve done. It’s the same team. They know what I can do, what I’m capable of, and what I can bring to the team every fifth day.”
Showalter said he could tell there’s a different look in Tillman even after one workout.
“I know what was going on this time last year, and it wasn’t that,” Showalter said. “You could tell just from his body language and his face that it wasn’t there. It’s that old saying. It’s just that you want to know you’re on your way to the end game. I don’t think he felt mentally last year that he was on his way to the end game. He’s where he needs to be in the process. Last year, he wasn’t.”
Moving on without lefty
With veteran left-handers Jason Vargas and Jaime García finding homes within the past week, there aren’t many free-agent left-handed starters 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 interested in 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. Our pitching staff, we have to come up with some solutions to our pitching staff so that we can pitch competitively this year.”
Susac still uncertain
Catcher Andrew Susac, who had been hospitalized for what Showalter called a staph infection, was discharged Tuesday and reported back to camp Wednesday. He didn’t participate in Wednesday’s workout, and Showalter said he wasn’t certain when he’d return to the field.
“He’s got a couple more days, at least,” Showalter said.
Around the horn
Utility infielder Éngelb Vielma has missed the first three full-squad workout days with visa problems. … Thursday’s intrasquad game will be four innings and will be played on the main Ed Smith Stadium field. Most starters aren’t expected to play since the Orioles begin their Grapefruit League schedule at home Friday followed by a split-squad schedule Saturday. … The Orioles, as well as ever other major league team, will wear the caps from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School baseball team Friday to honor the victims of last week’s shooting at the school in Parkland, which is about three hours away from Sarasota.