Over the weekend, MASN’s Roch Kubatko reported that Orioles GM Dan Duquette has been in contact, again, with the representatives for starting pitcher Chris Tillman regarding a possible contract extension with the O’s. Given other starting pitcher contracts out there right now, what is Tillman worth?
No two baseball players are exactly alike, but when the time comes to figure out what one of them is worth, it’s easy enough to use another player’s contract as a reference point to at least get a ballpark idea. The nitty-gritty remains for the two sides to negotiate once they get in the same vicinity.
If this guy got this much money and Tillman’s better than him, shouldn’t Tillman expect more? Or if this guy who’s better got a different amount of money, shouldn’t Tillman expect less?
Helpfully, another pitcher contract for comparison was thrown onto the pile just this week when the Kansas City Royals signed their starting pitcher Danny Duffy, who is, like Tillman, entering his final year before free agency, to a five year, $65 million contract extension.
Tillman vs. Duffy money
Other than having the same amount of MLB service time, there aren’t a ton of similarities between Tillman and Duffy. Though they were born in the same calendar year, Duffy’s December birthday makes him a year younger in baseball age.
Duffy is left-handed; Tillman is a righty. Duffy can light up the radar gun with a 94.8mph average fastball, according to Fangraphs. Tillman is no junk ball pitcher, but he’s certainly not that kind of flamethrower, either. Duffy struck out more than one in four batters that he faced in the 2016 season, better than Tillman has ever done, and walked fewer than 6%, also better than Tillman has ever done.
All of that makes it sound like Duffy getting $65 million means Tillman might have to settle for less. However, Duffy is also a player with a Tommy John surgery in his medical history. Duffy has never started more than 26 games in a season and has only topped 150 innings pitched one time, which was the most recent season.
Tillman, by comparison, has started 30+ games in four straight seasons and has topped 200 innings twice. Duffy has had parts of seasons better than Tillman’s full seasons, like 2014 when Duffy had a 2.53 ERA in 149.1 innings, but Tillman, based on how the last several seasons have gone, is a less risky player to have signed to a deal, though he has much less upside as well.
The structuring of the Duffy contract is such that his free agent years are worth $15 million per year overall. Any discussion of a Tillman extension needs to go higher than the Duffy AAV, and not by just a million bucks, either.
Tillman vs. Hill money
A $16 million per year free agent contract is Rich Hill money, and Hill just got that money for three years on the strength of basically 24 good starts in the last decade. It’s also Ian Kennedy money. Kennedy, who hit free agency prior to his age 31 season - one year older than Tillman - got five years and $70 million from those same Royals before 2016 with a track record of mediocrity in pitchers parks in the NL West.
However, Kennedy’s salary was kept in check by the qualifying offer system that meant he cost a first round draft pick to sign. With baseball’s new CBA, Tillman will never face that kind of problem. If I was Tillman’s agent, with Tillman being one of the better soon-to-be-free agent starters, it would take more than Hill/Kennedy money to get any deal done for me.
Tillman vs. Samardzija money
Keep climbing the ladder and there’s Jeff Samardzija at $18 million per year. Samardzija, despite being saddled with a qualifying offer under the old system, managed to come away with five years and $90 million from the Giants prior to his age 31 season.
At the time he signed the contract, Samardzija had all of one season of above-average MLB starting pitching to his name, and that wasn’t even the most recent season before he was a free agent. Samardzija had an ERA near 5 in his walk year, which happened to be his first full season facing AL lineups.
Samardzija had selling points that Tillman doesn’t, including three straight 210+ inning campaigns before being a free agent and being more of a strikeout pitcher, but if I was about to be giving a pitcher that kind of money, I’d rather be giving it to one with Tillman’s 2013-16 performance rather than Samardzija’s 2012-15 performance.
Tillman vs. Porcello money
There might be a temptation to immediately reject that Tillman would be worthy of Porcello money - four years, $82.5 million - since Porcello has won a Cy Young and Tillman hasn’t. Worth remembering, though, that Porcello received his contract before he’d won the Cy Young or even had more than one good season.
The Porcello comparison is interesting because he negotiated his extension with the Red Sox one year before hitting free agency, after having already settled on his current-year contract, much like Tillman has done now.
Again, it’s not exact. Porcello’s contract extension kicked in on his age 27 season, so that’s three years younger than Tillman will be in his first year of his next contract. That makes a difference.
Does Tillman get $20 million a year if he hits free agency? I think this is his upper limit. Then again, he probably gets a fifth year if he becomes a free agent, assuming there’s not a disaster for him in 2017, so he could well exceed Porcello’s guaranteed money overall if he gets to that point.
The Orioles need to pay the price
This post works with the assumption that the Orioles should extend Tillman. Even as a proponent of that idea, I have to admit it’s not particularly exciting to imagine the Orioles kicking in $18 million per year for Tillman. Over four years, that would be $72 million.
What’s even more unexciting is the idea of the Orioles needing to fill two or three spots off the free agent market in the same offseason. The kinds of guys they have been signing in the $10-12 million/year range - Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo - just haven’t worked out. I’d rather have Tillman for $18 million than Gallardo plus Wade Miley, which would have cost them $20 million this year before they traded Gallardo.
Will the Orioles see it that way? That’s the more important question. If they do, they should be able to work something out with Tillman that’s fair for both sides. Four years with some kind of vesting option is a deal with some risk for the Orioles, but letting Tillman walk is a risk they can afford even less.