Andrew Stetka: Is Chris Tillman on pace for ace status?

There's always a discussion each year about baseball's aces and what really defines an ace pitcher. I personally hate the term. How is it defined, and what are the statistical criteria for someone to be called an ace? There are only four aces in a standard deck of playing cards, so every team can't have one. Or does that mean there are actually four on each team? No matter how you look at it, the term "ace" is very subjective and can lead to a lot of debate.

I'm not here to debate anything at the moment, or make any crazy proclamations. I am merely taking a look at what Orioles starter Chris Tillman has been doing over the past 18 months or so and thinking ahead to what could be in the near future.

No matter how you define an ace, Tillman is doing his best to jump into that category in the early part of the season. With a 0.84 ERA and an equal WHIP through his first three starts, Tillman has picked up right where he left off last season in anchoring a pitching staff which most agree consists of very middle-of-the-rotation starters. There was a time that the future O's rotation figured to feature Tillman alongside Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton and Brian Matusz. Arrieta is now in the Cubs organization, Britton and Matusz are in the bullpen, and Tillman is slowly but surely emerging as one of the better pitchers in baseball.

At 25, Tillman is the youngest of the four but appears to have made the most of his career so far and continues to have the most upside. The real question now, is not whether he can continue to be good, but if he can evolve into one of the game's elite pitchers and become the ace" the Birds have been looking for. Some expected that pitcher to be Ubaldo Jimenez, but it's Tillman who is building a strong resume and continues to impress pundits across the nation.

It could still be a bit too early to foresee, but Tillman could be on a similar path that some of the game's best pitchers have taken. It's tough to imagine Tillman's name being used in the same breath as Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw or David Price right now, but it's something that could develop in the near future. It takes a lot of hard work and recognition to get to that point, but it's something Tillman has already started.

Though it was as an injury replacement, he was named to his first All-Star Game last year. He's simplified things for himself on the mound and between his ears, as well. The other thing that works in Tillman's favor is his mental makeup. It's obviously important to have the ability to put up great numbers and help your team win games in order to become one of the best in the business, but Tillman has a work ethic and attitude toward his craft that appears to keep him grounded. He takes the high moments in stride and doesn't allow himself to get too low when things don't go the right way. It's amazing to look back at how he came to Baltimore. Many forget that Tillman was a piece in the same trade that brought Adam Jones to town from the Seattle Mariners.

It's also very important to realize how crucial Tillman will be to the O's staff this season. It's still early, but without Tillman's contributions, the starting staff would be a mess statistically. He's given them more innings, allowed fewer runs and kept hitters off the bases at a better rate than anyone.

There was little debate during spring training who would get the nod as the team's opening day starter even after Jimenez was signed, but Tillman is living up to the billing as the team's top pitcher. I won't call him an ace quite yet, but if he continues the pace he's set for himself, I won't have a choice but to do so.

Andrew Stetka blogs about the Orioles for Eutaw Street Report. Follow him on Twitter: @AStetka. His thoughts on the O's appear here as part of MASNsports.com's continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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