For Chris Tillman, 2017 was a nightmare. A shoulder injury nagged him in Spring Training and caused him to miss the first month of the regular season. But even when the right-hander was deemed “healthy”, the results were poor. He now enters the winter as a free agent with an unsure future.
Tillman’s trouble with his right shoulder has become a long, drawn out issue at this point. He hit the disabled listed with it back in August 2016 before bouncing back to finish the season and pitch in the Wild Card loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. That December, he was given “platelet-rich injections” into that right arm and then missed all of Spring Training and the month of April with the injury.
Based on how he performed when on the field in 2017, it would seem his shoulder is still healing. Tillman’s only win came in his first start of the season on May 7 against the White Sox. He finished the year 1-7 with a 7.84 ERA in 24 games, only 19 of which were starts. Those five relief appearances were the first of his major league career.
In a season in which velocities skyrocketed across the board in MLB, Tillman’s pitch speed was noticeably down. According to Fangraphs, the right hander’s average fastball dropped from 92.9 mph in 2016 to 91.3 mph this year. His changeup and curveball both slowed a tad as well.
As a result, Tillman got knocked around a lot by opposing offenses. Opponents hit .321 against Tillman with a .334 batting average against on balls in play. That could be due to the fact that 37.7 percent of balls hit were hit hard, a career worst.
No matter how you slice it, this was an awful campaign for Tillman. He allowed home runs at almost twice the rate he normally does (2.32 HR/9 in 2017), walked everyone (4.94 BB/9), didn’t get enough strikeouts (6.10 SO/9), and had a massive 1.89 WHIP.
Tillman couldn’t even make his starts quick. This year, he took 26.5 seconds between pitches, a marked increase from his career average of 22.9 seconds. Maybe that’s because he couldn’t get the ball over the plate and needed time to refocus? Only 40.9 percent of his pitches were in the strike zone and a career low of 24.3 percent of batters swung at his pitches out of the zone.
Everyone hates Chris
The 29-year-old’s struggles may be more to blame for the Orioles horrific starting pitching than anything else. Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley stink. This is known. Tillman, on the other hand, was the de facto ace in Baltimore over the previous four seasons, consistently giving at least 170 quality innings each summer. Imagine if he had been able to deliver a 4.50 ERA over 150 innings in 25 starts. Those aren’t amazing numbers, but could have made a world of difference for this team.
However, that didn’t happen and Tillman was a drain on the team. Baseball Reference gave him a -2.2 WAR, whereas Fangraphs was a tad kinder with their -1.0 mark. Either way, it’s not ideal.
So, where does Tillman go from here? He made $10.05 million in 2017, his final year of arbitration. Now he heads to the open market. Even if he had been healthy, the righty likely would have found himself behind Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn in the pecking order. Given his struggles and spotty health, Tillman may have to settle for a one-year deal to re-establish value and position himself for a long-term pact next offseason.
A return to the Orioles sure seems logical. The Birds have three open slots in their rotation, alongside Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, that will need to be filled by some one, Tillman or otherwise. Tillman is familiar with the organization, likely has roots of some kind in the area, and it could be a mutually beneficial move.
But if the hurler can get himself a one-year deal, he will need to be very careful about where that deal lands him. How he pitches in 2018 will decide how the league really sees him; steady pitcher who had an injury marred 2017 or a has-been that can’t hack it anymore. While a Baltimore comeback sounds like a storybook plot, it would probably be better for Tillman if he gets a little selfish with his decision.
Should he stay or should he go
The Orioles can provide Tillman with oodles of innings and opportunity, but the AL East remains a tough division to pitch in due to the small ballparks and homer-happy offenses. Two National League teams that pop out as possible fits are the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds. Neither team is set up to win in 2018 and could use a veteran innings eater on a cheap deal.
Of course, Tillman can’t exactly market himself as a “veteran innings eater” based on last year. But he has a track record and will have a full offseason to rehab whatever it is that ails him. I think a few teams would be willing to take a chance on him with the right deal.
The Orioles would be wise to stay in the mix, though. They know the pitcher better than anyone else, and he has always seemed like one of manager Buck Showalter’s favorites. A fully healthy Tillman could be the difference between a playoff berth and another October at home for this Baltimore team that is all-in for 2018.
Up next: Dylan Bundy