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Struggling veterans leave the Orioles having to make tough choices

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Chris Tillman has been a mess this season. Before he got hurt, J.J. Hardy was one of the league’s worst players. The Orioles have to decide how to hide them for two months.

Detroit Tigers v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

If everything was going perfectly for the Orioles, all of their players would play well and play for as many seasons as the Orioles want them to. Unfortunately, things aren’t quite that easy, which has put the O’s in a tough place with a couple of long-time Orioles: Chris Tillman and the still-injured J.J. Hardy.

Chris Tillman

With Tillman, the Orioles have already done what they were avoiding for months. He was officially in the bullpen on Sunday afternoon, and it seems like there he will remain, though he has never pitched in relief at the MLB level and only has six relief outings in the entirety of his professional career, dating back to 2006.

It’s not the outcome that anybody would have wanted. The Orioles were in need of good starting pitching and instead Tillman has been one of the worst starters in the league since returning from the disabled list. Tillman, who is about to be a free agent, has almost certainly cost himself tens of millions of dollars on his next contract with the way he’s pitched this season.

There’s not much time left for things to go any differently for Tillman. The season will be over in less than two months. The Orioles have the five starting pitchers they want to roll with.

Barring an injury or perhaps Dylan Bundy getting shut down if the Orioles fall out of the picture, there won’t be much of a space to let Tillman try out as a starter again. When a guy has an 8.10 ERA after 15 games started, with every sign pointing to him only getting worse, there’s nothing else to be done.

If Tillman hadn’t have been a long-time Oriole, he might have been designated for assignment instead of this soft demotion. They might also like to put him on the disabled list, but as long as he says he’s healthy, it’s not a choice for them.

If he stays buried in the bullpen for the rest of the year, it’s going to be a regrettable end of an Orioles tenure for the guy who was the only of the once-vaunted cavalry to ever make it as a starting pitcher for the Orioles. This is not exactly getting to go out on a high note, is it?

On the other hand, maybe it won’t be the end for Tillman with the O’s. Baltimore Baseball’s Dan Connolly actually argued over the weekend for the O’s to add a 2018 contract year for Tillman right now, reasoning that the cost of next season for Tillman would probably not be any greater than a pitcher with less upside that the O’s might sign as free agents anyway.

Connolly’s right about the state of the free agent pitching class that’s coming up this offseason. The Orioles, with pending free agents opening up three holes in their starting rotation, will definitely have to plow money into the rotation. The last couple of times they have done so, they ended up with Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo, so, you know.

Even if Tillman becomes a free agent, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an Orioles reunion. No other team has so much of a built up relationship with Tillman and I think desperation from both sides might eventually bring them back to one another. Still sucks to see the position that the O’s are in with him.

J.J. Hardy

Hardy, in the final year of his contract, actually had a chance for a little while to end up having his 2018 option year vest by reaching 600 plate appearances. That would have put the Orioles on the hook for $14 million for next season. Hardy was on pace to play nearly that much before his injury despite his .211/.248/.308 batting line. He was one of the worst players in MLB this season.

There’s not much reason to think that Hardy healing from the injury is going to turn his season around. He suffered the injury when he was hit by a pitch and he almost immediately went onto the disabled list. It’s not like it’s the kind of thing where you could hope that maybe it was something that had been nagging him for a while and then with rest, he could be better.

Over the last week, with the blistering hot beginning to the Orioles career of Tim Beckham, the idea that Hardy might be able to just waltz back in to the starting shortstop job has become a bit more farfetched.

Although manager Buck Showalter signaled he wanted Hardy to get his job back when he was eligible to return from the disabled list on August 18, there’s not even a guarantee that Hardy would be able to be back then. He’s yet to even start working on rehab from his injury. Setbacks are always a possibility for a guy who’s always had injury problems and is very soon to be 35 years old, and it’s been nearly two months since he’s seen live pitching.

Beckham’s not going to keep hitting as well as he has for the first six games of his Orioles tenure, of course. No baseball player is going to perform like that for two months. But even the batting line he had put up with the Rays was leaps and bounds better than what Hardy seems to be capable of at this point: .259/.314/.407. That’s without even discounting that maybe a change of scenery is just what Beckham needed.

Hardy is another guy without whom it’s hard to imagine there being a successful era of the Orioles. His best season at the plate with the O’s was before they were good, but considering they’ve been built on strong defense, having a guy win three Gold Gloves for the team is exactly what they needed.

Respecting a veteran is one thing, but if the Orioles are still pushing for a playoff spot, can they possibly just throw a diminished Hardy back in there most nights at the expense of a guy who they need to find out if he can be the shortstop of the next several seasons? That’s a tough sell, at least for me.

**

The Orioles have already made the tough choice with Tillman. Based on the current timetable, they’re two weeks away from that time with Hardy. It’s not the greatest possible send-off into the sunset for a couple of long-time Orioles, but they’re in a playoff race right now. This is not the time for sentiment.