Orioles' beat writer Eduardo A. Encina and columnist Peter Schmuck on the injury to Orioles starting pitcher Chris Tillman. (Baltimore Sun video)
SARASOTA, FLA. — There is only one conclusion to be drawn from Tuesday's revelation that Orioles ace Chris Tillman will not be ready to start Opening Day as he continues to experience right shoulder soreness:
This is something the Orioles could absolutely not afford to happen to their paper-thin starting rotation.
Tillman was the club's winningest pitcher last year and had twice as many victories as a starter (16) than any other Orioles pitcher except Kevin Gausman (nine), who appears to be the leading candidate to end Tillman's streak of three straight Opening Day starts.
Now, the Orioles have to hope for a "best-case" scenario, according to manager Buck Showalter, who seemed to indicate that anything worse would be very problematic for a club that traded away Yovani Gallardo on Jan. 6 and did not re-sign bargain free-agent swingman Vance Worley.
That best-case scenario, which the athletic training staff mapped out on a day calendar before spring training and Showalter held in his hands while he explained the situation to reporters, would allow Tillman to resume baseball drills in early March. Tillman would then pitch a simulated game in mid-March and appear in two or three exhibition games. If the team does not have to put him on the disabled list, the earliest he could start during the regular season would be on April 7 against the New York Yankees.
The Orioles can only hope everything goes according to that plan. But that the shoulder problem cropped up again after Tillman went on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation last August leaves plenty of room to wonder whether he will be dealing with it for all or a large part of the upcoming season.
Any extended absence would be terrible news for the Orioles and also for Tillman, who is entering his final year under club control and will be positioned to score a very large free-agent contract if he can replicate his strong performances from three of his four seasons as a full-time starter.
Baseball operations chief Dan Duquette clearly was betting on a quick return when he traded Gallardo to the Seattle Mariners for outfielder Seth Smith and wasn't willing to offer Worley more than a minor league deal. In each case, Duquette was aware that Tillman had suffered the setback in December.
It wasn't totally unreasonable to believe that Tillman would heal quickly because he's a durable guy who came back to pitch effectively at the end of last season. But Duquette might regret leaving the club so exposed.
The Orioles now find themselves pretty much in the same situation as they were at this time last year, when they opened spring training with four projected starters and a handful of minor league candidates for the final place in the rotation. Duquette moved decisively to add Gallardo in late February, but still had to scramble to backfill the rotation when Gausman had to start the season on the DL with a sore shoulder and Gallardo came up sore in late April.
Welcome to Showalter's recurring nightmare. The Orioles lost starters Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez to the DL during the first half of the 2015 season and Tillman had to start the 2013 season on the shelf with an abdominal strain.
What makes this situation more troublesome is the seeming lack of viable options outside the organization. Duquette has been able to find pitching help after the start of spring training on several past occasions, but the Orioles probably will have to go back to the usual minor league candidates if Tillman is not back before Showalter needs a fifth starter for the first time on April 15.
Remember, this is a team that barely made the playoffs last year and returns with the same major strengths that got it that far. The prospects for a deeper playoff run figured to depend on a strong walk year from Tillman, the continuing development of Gausman and Dylan Bundy, and a bounce-back performance by either Wade Miley or Ubaldo Jimenez.
All of that could still be in the cards. But with Tillman temporarily out of the picture, there will be added pressure on the young starters to move up and carry the rotation and there is always the possibility of someone else coming up sore over the next six weeks.
For a team that annually generates low preseason expectations from the sabermetrics crowd and the national analysts, this is no way to kick off spring training.