If Chris Tillman isn't part of the Orioles' rotation when they break camp, it won't be from a lack of effort.
Tillman continues to work out with Orioles special assistant Brady Anderson in California, part of a group that also includes Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter, Scott Beerer and Rick VandenHurk.
"Workout-wise, we're getting after it pretty good, whether Brady is here or not," Tillman said. "There's always a guy there to watch us. It's tough to get back in shape and to get in really good shape, and he has us pretty good right now.
"It's been a lot of fun. This is a good group of guys. We push each other strength-wise and agility-wise and throwing. I've been throwing a lot lately and I'm way ahead of where I was at last year. It's an exciting time for all of us."
It easily could be a discouraging time for Tillman, but he's only sweating from the exercise, not all of the starting candidates who will join him at Ed Smith Stadium for spring training,
Tillman has another minor league option remaining and he might have to use it in April. Unless there's a trade, three spots in the rotation should go to Hunter, Jeremy Guthrie and Wei-Yin Chen. That leaves two more and a bunch of pitchers vying for them, including Matusz, Tsuyoshi Wada, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton and Dana Eveland. Also, the Orioles have been engaged in trade talks with the Cardinals regarding Kyle McClellan, who could start or work in relief, and it's believed that they made an offer to free agent Edwin Jackson.
"I've always been in a position where I've got to go out and win a spot," said Tillman, who started the second game last season after Brian Matusz was placed on the disabled list with an intercostal injury. "I've been an underdog every year so far. But it's more fun for all of us, having to go out and compete with everyone. That's kind of what this offseason did for us. We're all pushing each other in the weight room and running-wise and throwing-wise. It's always a blast going out there and competing against guys. Gives us more incentive to do that."
Tillman's critics need to be reminded that he's only 23, but even the most stubborn of his defenders can't ignore his shortcomings. He's struggled to keep his pitch counts down and to put away hitters. He's 43-37 with a 3.88 ERA in 120 minor league games (115 starts), and 7-15 with a 5.58 ERA in 36 major league starts.
Tillman had two stints with the Orioles last season and wasn't recalled when rosters expanded in September. He tossed six hitless innings in his debut against the Rays at Tropicana Field, coming out of the game because of his elevated pitch count, but he followed up by allowing four runs and six hits in 4 2/3 innings against the Tigers, and six runs and nine hits in 1 2/3 innings against the Yankees. He permitted four runs in 11 2/3 innings in his next two starts, but the Royals pounded him for eight runs and 10 hits in 3 2/3 innings.
In Tillman's final start for the Orioles on Aug. 11, he gave up six runs and eight hits, and walked three batters, in 2 2/3 innings against the White Sox at Camden Yards. Only five days earlier, he held the Blue Jays to two runs and four hits in seven innings.
"I've been saying for three years now that consistency is the thing," he said. "It's being able to throw all my pitches for strikes. That's another thing I'm working on. It's been pounded in our heads the last four or five months. I'm really looking forward to seeing the results this year. I already see good things while playing catch and in the bullpen. It's a good feeling."
Tillman plans on reporting to camp on Feb. 15, three days before he's required to be there, and he'll be in peak condition. He'll need all the strength he can muster to grab a spot in the rotation, and to hold onto it.
"I'm in better shape than I've ever been, at least stronger," he said. "All the running has definitely helped. I truly believe I'm better than I've ever been. I went to API last year, but that was more about injury prevention. This year, I'm going after it. No more tryout stuff. I've got to get after it. I'm train pretty hard out there."
On a separate topic, MLBTradeRumors.com listed 11 Orioles on the 40-man roster with less than five years of service who are out of minor league options: Robert Andino, Chris Davis, Dana Eveland, Jim Johnson, Jai Miller, Troy Patton, Clay Rapada, Nolan Reimold, Alfredo Simon, Pedro Strop, and Taylor Teagarden.
Andino, Davis, Johnson, Reimold and Teagarden are the surest bets to be part of the 25-man roster on opening day unless there's an injury or trade.
NOTE: Yes, the Orioles signed left-hander Casey Fossum to a minor league deal. No, it does not include a spring training invite. Continue to breathe normally.
Fossum, whose last major league action consisted of three games with the Mets in 2009, will probably get into a split-squad game and serve as an extra arm on some road trips. It would be a real shocker if he broke camp with the team. I wouldn't choose him as my dark horse.
The Sun reported last night that Fossum signed a minor league contract.