SARASOTA, Fla. - Chris Tillman no longer will be a spectator in spring training.
Hidden behind the walls of the Ed Smith Stadium complex while negotiations continued on a new contract, Tillman is free to join the workouts and prepare to join a rotation that’s added two starters in less than a week.
“It is a relief,” he said this morning while standing outside an entrance to the clubhouse. “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.”
“I’m real happy that Chris Tillman is back and we got his contract done,” said executive vice president Dan Duquette. “It’s took a little bit of work, but we came up with a deal where he can come back and pitch and hopefully for him and for us he can return to the form (he had) for the first five years with the club. And he’s got a good opportunity.
“We need the veteran leadership that Chris Tillman brought to our clubs from 2012 to 2016. Here’s a guy who was a tough pitcher in the division, one of the top starting pitchers in the American League and a very dependable guy. He was on the mound when we went to the playoffs in 2016. At his age, having the benefit of training for the winter, there’s a good chance he can come back and pitch that way.”
The Orioles didn’t need any more delays in getting Tillman into camp. They reached agreement on a one-year deal worth $3 million that can inflate to $10 million with incentives, but were unable to announce it yesterday while waiting on the necessary paperwork.
“It’s important,” Tillman said. “I think it’s more important for starting pitchers than anything, so get your feet under you, get in a routine, get in a good routine and kind of get everything nailed down before everything gets going.”
“I think that it took a while for the market to develop,” Duquette said, “and it’s hard to find a deal that the club is comfortable with and the player is comfortable with, particularly when you have the variance in performance level. I’ve never had a player be so good in one year and struggle so much the next year at Chris’ age. 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.”
Tillman, 29, is viewed as a prime bounceback candidate after going 1-7 with a 7.84 ERA, 1.892 WHIP and -2.2 WAR last year over 24 games. His shoulder is sound, he’s had a normal offseason and both sides expect his spring training to go more smoothly, minus the interruptions that led to his season-opening trip to the disabled list.
Asked whether he feels noticeably better this spring, Tillman replied, “Oh, yeah. 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.”
He’s thrilled to be in Sarasota as an Oriole instead of a resident waiting on a job.
“It’s special to me,” he said. “It’s the only place I know. It really is. I think for me and my family, my wife and my parents, they’ve only really seen me pitch in a Baltimore uniform other than high school, so that was a big part of it. And you’ve got to go where you’re comfortable and your family is comfortable.
“It (waiting) was tough, 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.”
The Orioles weren’t shy in expressing their interest in re-signing Tillman. The process began immediately with vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson and continued through the winter and into camp.
Tillman’s confidence in a return built over time.
“I think this place is always the place I wanted to come and they reached out first,” he said. “I was here last year and I talked with Buck (Showalter), I talked with Brady and Brady called me the day the season ended. 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.”
The key is not returning to the dark place that he resided in 2017.
“There wasn’t a whole lot that went right, beginning in the offseason,” he said. “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.”
Tillman is back into the routine that enabled him to be chosen as the opening day starter for three consecutive seasons before 2017. That gave him the chance to make 30 or more starts four years in a row.
“I had my normal offseason that I’ve had over the last couple of years,” he said. “Last year wasn’t that case and we were able to get in the weight room early, to throw early and it’s for the good to be able to do those kinds of things again.
“I feel good with where I’m at right now. I really do, just based off 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.”
The Orioles may have been the only team to put a major league offer on the table. The skeptics point to a large sample size of failures last season and question the wisdom. But Tillman never doubted himself. Never felt a growing sense of disbelief.
“There might have been from the outside, but not for me,” he said. “I know what I’m capable of, and I wasn’t very far removed from doing that on a consistent basis. It’s one out of seven years so far, I think. It’s behind. It’s in the rearview mirror, and we move forward.
“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.”
“Those two guys I talked to all offseason,” Tillman said. “They pretty much knew everything I was doing. They knew the whole process. We’re a close group of guys. It does feel good.”
Tillman, who’s expected to have a side session today, joins veteran Andrew Cashner as recent signings for a rotation that needed significant repair after posting a 5.70 ERA in 2017.
“I think we can be good,” Tillman said. “We have this conversation every year. I think we’re as good as the starting pitcher is every night. We know what our defense is capable of. We know what our offense is capable of. You’ve just got to give them a chance as a starter.
“Our bullpen is the same way. You know what they’re going to bring to the table, and you’ve got to get deep in the ballgame and pitch well and give your team a chance to win. And on this team I think that goes a real long way.”
The Orioles aren’t done searching for starters.
“Yeah, there’s some other areas on the club that we need to continue to try to address,” Duquette said. “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, we continue to look for left-handed hitting. We’re going to need some more depth in our infield, especially our middle infield.
“I do like the depth of our outfield. I think we probably have as much depth there as any other of our positions. And our pitching staff, we have to come up with some solutions to our pitching staff so that we can pitch competitively this year.
“We were looking for a couple of veteran starting pitchers, and with the signing of Andrew Cashner and Chris Tillman, there’s a couple of proven starters in the American League. We could use a left-handed starter, so we’re going to look at (Nestor) Cortes to see if he’s an option. We like a lot of things that we’ve seen about him. Some of the other guys in camp, we’ll take a look at them, too. But the arms are pretty good. If we come up with another pitcher out of the other arms that we invited into camp, that would be good.”
Duquette isn’t suggesting that he’s done mining for pitchers outside the organization.
“No, we need to address our pitching. We need to continue to address our pitching,” he said.
“I think there’s only one left-hander (Francisco Liriano) on the market that has major league experience, 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.”
The need for a left-handed hitting corner outfielder appears to contradict the decision to designate Jaycob Brugman for assignment, though the Orioles signed Alex Presley to a minor league deal earlier this week.
“I think we do have some pretty good depth of talent there,” Duquettes aid. “We have the switch-hitters (Cedric) Mullins and (Anthony) Santander. We have DJ Stewart. We have (Austin) Hays as an option and then there are some other left-handed hitters in the market that we hope to be able to sign.”
The Orioles remain in negotiations with the agent for outfielder Colby Rasmus. I can confirm the various reports, including ones from SB Nation and The Baltimore Sun, that there’s mutual interest from both sides on getting a deal done.
The Orioles made a run at Rasmus prior to the 2015 season, with Showalter visiting the outfielder’s home in Alabama. The club believed that it had reached an agreement, but the agent pushed late for more guaranteed money, according to a source, and the deal crumbled.
Rasmus, who would fill the Orioles’ need for a left-handed hitter capable of playing all three outfield spots, spent two seasons with the Astros and batted .223/.301/.419 in 244 games. He appeared in only 37 games with the Rays last season, batting .281/.318/.579 with seven doubles, nine home runs and 23 RBIs.
Rasmus was placed on the disabled list June 23 with left hip tendinitis and on the restricted list July 13 to deal with a personal matter. He didn’t play after June 18 and questions mounted about his desire to continue his career.
Without naming specific free agents, Duquette said, “If we can add a left-handed bat to take a look at, that would be helpful.”