The big news out of Orioles camp on the first work day of spring training is that Chris Tillman will not be healthy for Opening Day after receiving a PRP injection in his shoulder back in December. If you hadn’t heard yet, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you.
One of the big questions looming over the team for the whole of spring training will be: What now? The prospect of the Orioles facing any significant portion of the season without a healthy Tillman is not a heartening one.
For now, the Orioles aren’t sounding apocalyptic about his injury, with manager Buck Showalter telling reporters that Tillman is just three weeks behind. On that timetable, he could begin pitcher fielding practice - which everyone else started today - on March 3, with a simulated game on March 14 and an exhibition start on March 17.
Even in that optimistic scenario, Tillman would be expected to open up the season on the disabled list, with an earliest eligible return date of April 9. That’s the fifth game of the season. My experience with injured Orioles is that they seldom return on the date that’s given initially as a target return date. If Tillman hits that target date, he’d still be limited to 75 pitches, according to the current O’s plan.
At FanFest, Showalter may have been very obliquely hinting at Tillman’s injury when he pointed out that the team would not need a fifth starter until April 15, due to three early off days on the schedule.
Those off days mean that the Orioles can go until their tenth game before they would need to employ a starter who isn’t currently expected to be in the rotation - well, assuming that the other four anticipated starters, Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Wade Miley, make it through spring training without incidents of their own.
Maybe that will be enough time for Tillman. If he’s really only three weeks behind, the almost six weeks from March 3 to April 15 should be enough time for him to get into the form he’d usually be in at the end of spring training. That wouldn’t be so bad.
On the other hand, with any setback at all, and there’s generally a setback, someone from the depth pile is starting at least one game. If Tillman has to miss some significant time, who are the candidates to replace him?
The good news is that the Orioles are flush with players who are in line to step up in this kind of situation. Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, and T.J. McFarland have all started games at the MLB level. Among other pitchers on the 40-man roster, several started in the minors last year: Jayson Aquino, Jason Garcia, Joe Gunkel, Chris Lee, Logan Verrett, and Gabriel Ynoa.
The bad news is that none of those guys are good. Possibly none of them are good enough to be MLB starting pitchers at all. Wilson and Wright certainly didn’t look like it last year.
None of the rest were exactly pitching at such a high level that they were practically breaking down the door to a big league rotation spot. No one’s minor league numbers were encouraging:
- Aquino at Bowie: 19 starts, 3.90 ERA
- Garcia at Bowie: 24 starts, 4.73 ERA
- Gunkel at Norfolk: 24 starts, 4.08 ERA
- Lee at Bowie: 7 starts, 2.98 ERA (missed most of season with lat injury)
- Verrett with Mets: 35 games, 12 starts, 5.20 ERA
- Ynoa at Triple-A Las Vegas: 25 starts, 3.97 ERA; 10 games, 3 starts with Mets, 6.38 ERA
A standard rule is not to simply scout minor league box scores. Maybe someone who had watched all of Bowie’s games or Norfolk’s games would have a reason to be more encouraged than those ERAs indicate. Bowie and Norfolk being stashed with non-prospects may mean their defenses aren’t very good, for instance.
But, just in general, it’s hard to feel good about one of these guys starting games at the big league level with the above track records. At least Wilson and Wright pitched well enough in the minors to make it to the show on their own merits, even if, in their first prolonged taste of the action, they ended up with ERAs over 5.
Is it time for the Orioles to sign one of the remaining free agent starting pitchers? None of those names are exactly exciting. Most are unsigned because they’ve battled injury problems, ineffectiveness, or both in recent seasons. The best of the bunch might be Doug Fister, who started 32 games for the Astros last season but posted a 4.64 ERA while lobbing fastballs at only 87mph.
If the Orioles really believe that Tillman is only three weeks behind schedule, and that he will remain three weeks behind schedule, they probably don’t want to waste a roster spot or money on a free agent. That’s reasonable, if Tillman remains on a timetable where he only has to miss two or three weeks.
The Orioles do seem to believe this is the case. Although they kept Tillman’s injury a secret until today, they were aware of it all along and could have made the choice to address this while many free agents were still on the market.
If the Orioles had real concern that Tillman would miss time, I would hope that if nothing else, they would have tried harder to re-sign Vance Worley, who had to settle for a minor league deal with the Nationals. The fact that they did not do so is an indication of what they were thinking about Tillman.
The Orioles aren’t perfect. Sometimes they believe incorrect information and make wrong decisions. This could prove to be one of those times.
Maybe things will even go just fine with Tillman’s recovery and none of this will matter. Stranger things have happened. That would be ideal, because the team needs a healthy Tillman if they’re going to go places this season.