TORONTO — The Orioles began to cut ties with veteran right-hander Chris Tillman on Friday, designating him for assignment as the end of his minor league rehabilitation window expired.
Tillman, who was re-signed as a free agent in the offseason in hopes that he would rebuild from a disastrous 2017 season, struggled even more this season, going 1-5 with a 10.46 ERA in seven big league starts before going on the disabled list with a lower back strain.
The Orioles have 10 days to either trade, release or send Tillman through waivers. Executive vice president Dan Duquette said the Orioles have given Tillman the opportunity to remain in the organization and pitch in the minors; it’s an option Tillman is weighing against becoming a free agent.
The team also selected the contract of infielder-outfielder Renato Núñez from Triple-A Norfolk. He replaced Tillman on the 40-man roster and takes the spot of All-Star shortstop Manny Machado, who was traded Wednesday to the Los Angeles Dodgers, on the 25-man roster.
From 2013 to 2016, Tillman was the Orioles’ most reliable starter, averaging 32 starts, 14 wins, 190 innings and a 3.91 ERA with a 56-30 record. But since the beginning of 2017, Tillman is 2-12 with an 8.42 ERA in 32 games (26 starts).
The move marks the end of the tenure of another key member of the Orioles’ recent resurgence, as the team continues to turn its focus to its rebuild.
"Chris did a great job for us over the years,” Duquette said. “He was the ace of the staff for our last playoff team and was the starter in the wild-card game [that season]. He pitched in some big games for us over the years. But it's time for us to move on and give an opportunity to some of our younger pitchers as we attempt to reach our next competitive window.”
Since his 2016 season ended with a shoulder injury, Tillman has struggled immensely. His preparation for last season was slowed by offseason shoulder fatigue, and he never found his footing.
“It’s tough,” closer Zach Britton said. “I’ve been with Tilly for a long time. So it’s kind of a changing of the guard thinking about where we are now. We put up a couple of good runs and unfortunately we didn’t get as far as we wanted to a couple of those years. It’s kind of new era in a lot of ways. But hopefully, Tilly can get back to where he wants to get to.”
This year, the Orioles were convinced by watching Tillman’s offseason throwing sessions in Sarasota, Fla., that he was worth re-signing, giving him a $3 million major league deal in February.
“We had an open spot in our rotation and Chris was a veteran pitcher who knows his way around the American League East and can win ballgames,” Duquette said. “So we set out to try to find his old form, but that didn’t happen. The results were consistent, from 2017 and ’18 and on his rehab.”
Tillman averaged less than four innings a start in his seven appearances this season. He had more walks (17) than strikeouts (13), and opponents hit .365 against him.
After a pair of outings in which he didn’t get out of the second inning, Tillman went on the disabled list with a lower back strain, an injury he said he suffered while dodging a foul ball in the Orioles dugout and attempted to pitch through for his last two starts.
Tillman sat out for nearly six weeks, then began his minor league rehab assignment. In six starts, he had a 6.75 ERA and opponents batted .333 against him.
He ended his rehab with a 5 1/3-inning, 100-pitch outing with Triple-A Norfolk in which he allowed just two runs. It apparently wasn’t enough to reclaim his spot in the big league starting rotation as the club has chosen to continue to give young arms such as rookie right-handers Yefry Ramírez and Jimmy Yacabonis starts with an eye to the future.
“There were some good things,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Tillman’s rehab. “There were some challenging things. Just didn’t feel like at the stage where we were, that he was showing enough things there to warrant taking, say, Ramírez or Yacabonis or whoever, take that opportunity away from them. But Chris might get an opportunity with us. He controls it.”
Núñez takes over at third
The promotion of Núñez marks one of several anticipated moves over the second half of the season to begin evaluating some of the organization’s top-level minor leaguers at the big league level for beyond the 2018 season.
With Tim Beckham moving back to shortstop to replace Machado, Showalter said Núñez will receive most of the playing time at third base for the time being — with Jace Peterson and Danny Valencia also getting some time at third.
Núñez was in the starting lineup on his first day with the big league club, batting eighth and starting at third.
“Núñez is just 24 years old, and he’s had an excellent year in Triple-A and he was the best right-handed bat there,” Duquette said. “He’s improved defensively. We’re going to take a look at him.”
In 56 games with Norfolk, Núñez hit .289/.361/.443 with 20 extra-base hits (14 doubles, one triple and five homers) and 25 RBIs, and he’s had twice as many strikeouts (49) as walks (23). While Núñez has had experience at both corner infield spots and in left field, he primarily played third with the Tides, making 36 of his 41 starts there.
“I think you’ll like the way the ball comes off his bat,” Showalter said. “He’s really worked hard defensively, too, made some strides there. I know Tim’s excited about getting back to shortstop.”
Núñez has played in just 30 big league games, going 11-for-66 and posting a .167/.222/.278 slash line with two homers and six RBIs. He played 13 major league games with the Texas Rangers this season, going 6-for-36 with one homer and two RBIs and 12 strikeouts.
The Orioles claimed Núñez from the Rangers on May 13, ran him through waivers unclaimed and optioned him to Norfolk.
Around the horn
Utility man Steve Wilkerson (oblique) and outfielder Craig Gentry (ribs) both resumed baseball activities over the break. Both are expected to return in early August, but Gentry would return earlier. “They’re moving toward rejoining us,” Showalter said. … Right-hander Andrew Cashner is eligible to return from the disabled list Saturday, but he will receive an extra day before making his first start back, slated to pitch in Sunday’s series finale against the Blue Jays. Cashner went on the DL after his most recent start July 10 against the New York Yankees with a neck strain, and Showalter said he received a pressure point injection he’d had before around the All-Star break. Because of the timing around the break, Cashner missed just one turn through the starting rotation.