SARASOTA, Fla. - What was considered a mere formality has become an open competition.
Chris Tillman figured to make his fourth consecutive opening day start for the Orioles, the only drama being how long it would take to get confirmation. However, a platelet-rich plasma injection in Tillman’s right shoulder has pushed him back three weeks and made him a prime candidate for the disabled list.
Manager Buck Showalter confirmed this afternoon that Tillman, 28, had a setback with his offseason throwing program, which led to a phone call to head athletic trainer Richie Bancells and a reshuffling of plans.
“The shoulder didn’t feel like it should be where it should be at that time,” Showalter said. “They ended up doing a PRP injection and all it’s done is kind of ... Some of the things he would have been doing ... I think it was two weeks after the injection, two or three weeks before you do anything. Kind of got set back.
“After a lot of discussion with Richie and Chris and the doctors, we think it’s best (to) basically pick up his program three weeks later. We’ve got it mapped out where he’ll be one of our five starters to start the season, but right now opening day, he probably won’t be an option.”
The best-case scenario calls for Tillman to first participate in pitchers fielding practice on March 3, throw a simulated game on March 14 and appear in an exhibition game three days later. He could be available to start April 7 against the Yankees at Camden Yards.
If Tillman goes on the new 10-day disabled list, the assignment would be backdated to March 30 and he couldn’t debut until April 9, with the Orioles limiting him to around 75 pitches.
“To get him where he needs to be, it won’t fall on opening day,” Showalter said.
“That’s a pretty tight schedule that doesn’t allow for setbacks much. Any setbacks would probably put ... you guys have done the math. The 15th is the first time we need a fifth starter. He could be pitching for us before the 15th. It’s not that we’re pushing him all the way back there.
“Any setback in the schedule would make us have to ... if he misses a side day or anything, it’s pretty tight.”
The first day of workouts and the Orioles already have their first injury, though it didn’t occur on one of the back fields or mounds at the Ed Smith Stadium complex.
“He was down for three weeks in mid-December, I think it was, when he alerted Richie and them to it,” Showalter said. “We’re going to make sure we get it right. This is as fast as we feel comfortable going safely.
“I’ve got high hopes that we get this resolved and he pitches all year for us.”
An elevated level of concern comes from Tillman going on the disabled list Aug. 23 with tendinitis in the same shoulder, an ailment that cost him 21 days. He made 30 starts and went 16-6 with a 3.77 ERA and 1.285 WHIP in 172 innings.
“There were some things that at a point in the season that he was working his way through. He was pretty good toward the end as I understand it,” Showalter said.
“He managed it real well when we rested him. Then when he cranked it up back this offseason, it wasn’t responding like he wanted it to. I wish we could have caught it a little earlier, but he came to us. A guy in Chris’ situation, knowing Chris like we know him, when he complains about anything or just brings it to our attention, you know it’s something that you should probably address.
“It happens a lot of times. These guys start throwing again and they all go through some discomfort early on. It’s cranky. He was probably saying, ‘This will go away,’ and it didn’t. And, ‘You know what? I’m going to talk to Richie about this and see.’
“That’s why depth is important, but it doesn’t necessarily open up a spot ... You could potentially backdate it and carry an extra guy. I’m going to look at that in the next few days.”
Tillman has made 33, 34, 31 and 30 starts over the past four seasons and received the opening day assignment in the last three. He’s entering the final year of his contract and the Orioles have engaged in light discussions centered around a long-term extension.
Tillman avoided an arbitration hearing by signing for $10.050 million.
Kevin Gausman began last season on the disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis and Yovani Gallardo went on the DL April 23 with a similar ailment. The Orioles, dealing from their rotation depth, traded Gallardo to the Mariners last month for outfielder Seth Smith, and Gausman is the early favorite to replace Tillman on opening day.
The Orioles entered the winter with six starters for five spots before trading Gallardo, and now they’ve lost Tillman. They acquired pitchers Logan Verrett and Gabriel Ynoa from the Mets this winter in separate cash deals and placed Joe Gunkel on the 40-man roster to protect him in the Rule 5 draft. Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright moved in and out of the rotation last season.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette has been in the market for another starter, though he prefers a minor league deal. The club offered one to Vance Worley in an attempt to re-sign the veteran right-hander, but he chose the Nationals on the same day that the Orioles held their annual FanFest.
It’s common for the Orioles to acquire pitchers after reporting to camp, a list that includes Gallardo, Ubaldo Jimenez, Suk-min Yoon and Johan Santana.
Tillman began the 2013 season on the disabled list with a strained left abdominal muscle. He could have tied Hall of Famer Jim Palmer (1974-1977) for most consecutive opening day starts in club history with four.
Is it Gausman’s turn?
“I’ve thought about it a little, not that much,” Showalter said. “Kind of see how it plays out. Obviously, we’ve got four candidates. Who would you start today against Toronto?”
Showalter said no other pitchers were restricted in camp.
“Not that I’m aware of,” he said. “We did pretty well with the physical today, knock on wood. So far so good.”
Today’s bullpen sessions provided Showalter with his first opportunity to watch Ynoa beyond the tape that he studied prior to the trade.
“He’s got a good arm, with an option,” Showalter said. “We’re in better shape than we’ve been in the past with optional pitchers. Some flexibility there.”
The first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers provided another chance to put the excruciating wild card loss behind them.
“I think the team’s ready to move on to the next year,” Showalter said. “There were a lot of great things that happened last year. You try not to lose sight of that. You come in here to work on things you want to get better at that last year you struggled with, but you make a real mistake if you don’t stay good at some things you’ve improved on. Kind of like to dwell on the positives.
“It was a lot of fun to get back out there today. It’s the first time you kind of turn the page on the previous season. You have to have that ability in this game as a player, as a coach, as a manager, as a general manager and as a fan.”
The teaching aspect of camp energizes Showalter, who made his usual rounds with fungo bat in hand. He led one of the bunting drills, squaring up at the plate before a ball was rolled to a pitcher or fielder.
“Everybody loves it. The players, everybody does,” Showalter said. “It’s one of the best times of the year. I think a lot of managers, the one thing they miss is coaching. You still pick your spots because there’s such a pull on your time with other things. It really reminds you why you do what you do in an element you want to be in.
“Our guys don’t seem to ever lose the attention to things because they know how important it is during the year, how many outs that we can get. It’s good to have people who have been here a while that kind of know why we do it. I’m always real comfortable if somebody asks why we’re doing something. Here’s exactly why. We come in here and we go over it video-wise. Here’s what we’re going to do today, here’s what it’s supposed to look like.
“We were able to get our guys to executive plays on tape in the stadium. They know exactly what’s going on and why it’s important. We show probably 10 or 15 live shots of it happening the last two years and why this is important, and then we go on the field. It’s fun. There’s a progression, there’s a process to get to the end game. You can’t speed up and say, ‘We’re going to do this one time and we won’t do it the rest of the year.’ And then you have guys like Zach (Britton) and Tillman who say, ‘Here’s what happens. You better be good at this.’ I think our guys take a lot of pride in it. They’re very good at it.”