Chris Tillman and the Orioles explored the possibility of a contract extension through the offseason and spring training. An Opening Day deadline for negotiations came and went without any progress. After the dust settled it seems like the two sides were never very close on reaching a deal, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.
The possible parameters in years and dollars that the two sides were discussing have not yet been made known, so it's tough to gauge what kind of deal the O's may have been offering or what kind of deal Tillman may have been seeking. Maybe the Orioles offered something reasonable and Tillman aimed higher; maybe Tillman asked for something reasonable and the Orioles were unwilling to meet even that asking price.
What should Tillman be worth in the current landscape? Back in January, Charlie Wilmoth on MLBTR profiled Tillman as a contract extension candidate and offered that if Tillman took a similar contract to Johnny Cueto (four years plus one option) that would run between $32-40 million in guaranteed money. Or if the O's and Tillman went for something in the range of five years, that would be in the same nature as a $55 million guaranteed contract given to Texas' Matt Harrison.
With Tillman locked in on a $4,315,000 salary for 2015, any discussion of future contracts will only get more expensive than those numbers, because any extension considered that encompassed this year would have had a relatively low-dollar year #1. That's for Tillman's first year of arbitration eligibility and it is the second-highest figure ever earned by a pitcher in his first year of arbitration. Tillman will have two more years left after this year.
He'll be in line for a raise in each of those years no matter how he performs in 2015 and 2016. The better he does, the more he'll be earning in the future.
One pitcher who did not have a problem coming to an agreement with his team before the beginning of the season is Boston's Rick Porcello, who will now have a guaranteed $82.5 million coming his way from 2016-19. That's on top of the $12.5 million they previously negotiated for Porcello's final year of arbitration eligibility, which is this year.
Does that set any kind of benchmark for Tillman to work around? Comparing the results of the two pitchers, some might say yes, although their situations are not exactly the same. What made Porcello figure to be such an interesting candidate if he hit the free agent market was his age. He would have been only 27 years old while seeking his first big contract, meaning teams could expect many of the years they would get of him would be with Porcello on the right side of 30.
Though Tillman is a mere eight months older than Porcello, he's not as advanced in service time. Porcello was able to muddle along well enough to convince the Tigers not to demote him along the way after debuting in MLB at age 20. He was never exactly good in this time, with a combined 4.51 ERA for 868.2 innings prior to a breakout 2014 season.
Tillman, on the other hand, combined to make 36 starts across three partial seasons in which he mustered a 5.58 ERA. No wonder he couldn't stick in the big leagues. Demotions bring a screeching halt to service time. That means that by the time Tillman is currently lined up to reach the free agent market, he'll already be 30. He'd be worth less to teams than Porcello might have been for that reason.
The fact that Porcello is getting that kind of money is a bit of a head-scratcher if you look at results-oriented stats like ERA. Porcello has had one good season out of the last five, with the other four being on the bad side of okay-ish.
That one good season came last year when he tossed over 200 innings for Detroit and, for the first time, sanded his ERA down below his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). In 2013, for instance, Porcello recorded a 4.32 ERA with a 3.53 FIP. It was a similar story the previous three years. In 2014, though, Porcello had a 3.43 ERA with a FIP of 3.67. Big difference.
What changed there? One thing that could have factored in was the Tigers trading Prince Fielder, meaning that the bellyflop master would not be in their infield. They moved Miguel Cabrera from third to first in the process. The Orioles know a little bit about moving a terrible third baseman across the diamond and having a dramatic transformation in the success of their infield. For Porcello, a contact pitcher whose career ground ball rate is over 50%, that could have been huge.
Then again, Cabrera's replacement at third base was Nick Castellanos, who rated an astoundingly bad -30 runs in the Defensive Runs Saved metric. That's not exactly a "plugging Manny Machado into the 2012 Orioles" level of dramatic transformation. So it doesn't seem like the Tigers really had any improvement at the hot corner that might have explained why Porcello finally started getting results the way FIP thought he would. That hasn't stopped the Red Sox from betting about $20 million per year that their own infield defense will continue to make Porcello look like a better pitcher.
Tillman is a pitcher on the other side of the FIP divide, with two-and-a-half seasons under his belt in which his results have confounded the expectations of those who take the FIP stat as gospel. Maybe his representation thinks that if Porcello (career 4.30 ERA) is worth $20 million a year, then any discussion of a Tillman extension (career 3.97 ERA) needs to have free agent years in that price range.
If that is the case, there's little shock that the Orioles might balk at that kind of price tag. That would be 1/6th of the 2015 payroll on one player, and while the payroll could be higher in 2018, that amount of money would still be likely to represent a significant chunk of payroll. That's only about 10% of what the Sox will be spending on players in 2015, so even if it does turn out to be a mistake, they won't be hamstrung by it.
Since the Opening Day deadline has passed, it seems any discussion of a Tillman extension will have to wait until the next offseason. By then, both Tillman's side and the Orioles will have had another year's worth of performance to affect their own valuation.
If Tillman has a great season, maybe the Orioles will be more likely to see him as a pitcher who must be locked up and thus meet his demands. That same outcome could drive up his price tag even more, though.
That would be a problem if it happened, but if the 2015 Orioles end up getting such a great performance from Chris Tillman that the 2018 Orioles can't afford him, that's a problem for the 2018 Orioles to deal with when we get there. In the meantime it probably would probably mean things in Birdland right here in 2015 are going swell.