There are few things the Orioles seem to like doing more than signing their own free agents. "I like our guys!" remains the rallying cry even though it hasn't worked out yet. A year from now when Manny Machado becomes a free agent, it probably won't apply any more. For now, it's still in effect with the Orioles bringing back Chris Tillman on a one year, incentive-heavy contract. The deal isn't official at this moment.
After Tillman's disastrous 2017 season, it's not a signing that moves the excitement needle very much. His overall numbers for the season are stunningly bad. Even though I spent an unfortunate time watching him pitch and absorbing just how bad he was, it remains shocking to look back and see that he posted a 7.84 ERA while allowing a whopping 24 home runs.
That's one home run per game Tillman pitched in, which would be bad enough in a starting pitcher who actually threw a lot of innings. Tillman threw only 93 innings. His walk rate also soared as he walked 11.5% of all of the batters he faced. For basically the whole season, Tillman looked nothing like his former self, and nothing like an MLB starter at all.
All of this happened after Tillman missed the first month of last season with a shoulder problem for which he'd received an offseason platelet-rich plasma injection and a spring training cortisone shot. This is the same shoulder where he had an issue that landed him on the disabled list in the second half of the 2016 season.
According to MASN's Roch Kubatko, the Orioles were the only team offering an MLB contract to Tillman. It's not encouraging if other teams all believed Tillman may be cooked, though it's also not a surprise after watching him last season.
"The Orioles are expecting a bounceback season from Tillman," Kubatko also wrote of the signing. One would hope they didn't sign him expecting another terrible season, of course. But they spent most of last season insisting he was healthy even as each passing start made it less likely that this was actually the case. Have they made an expert assessment, or has desperation led them to that conclusion?
It is always the case that a team has a ton more information with which to draw a conclusion about a player than I do. In the Orioles' case, all of their reams of extra information have led them, over the past five years, to trade for Scott Feldman and Bud Norris, to sign Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo, to trade again for Wade Miley and Jeremy Hellickson.
These were all varying degrees of bad ideas at the time that turned out varying levels of bad results as they played out. It's basically been six years since the Orioles made a good decision about their starting rotation, which is a big reason why the rotation looked the way that it did last year and throughout this offseason.
If you want to give the Orioles some credit for Norris performing well in 2014, then it's been more like 3.5 years since they made a good decision about signing or trading for a player. That's still not very good.
The most recent thing in one's memory is always the most vividly recalled, and that makes for a tendency to proclaim it the best when it's good or the worst when it's bad. Tillman's 2017 was certainly the worst. But Tillman has been good overall going back to 2012, posting a 4.21 ERA since then even with last year's disaster included.
I don't know if Tillman is going to return to the form he showed through 2016. I'm not very confident that he will, in fact. I would have rather seen the Orioles make a real investment in the rotation by signing someone like Lance Lynn than settling for the easy, cheap reunion with Tillman.
However, putting Tillman in the rotation nonetheless makes it better than it was two days ago. That's more of a statement on how much the Orioles appeared to be set on questionable internal options until they added Andrew Cashner and Tillman than anything.
Tillman could be bad. But as far as bets by the front office go, I'd rather see them betting on "Tillman could return to form" than betting on "Mike Wright could be an MLB-caliber starter this time if we wish hard enough." I would not care to make either bet if my life depended on it. Fortunately, baseball outcomes aren't life-or-death.
The fifth starter competition will be unfolding as spring training goes along, so things may yet develop in such a way that we see the team betting on both Tillman and Wright. It's not an exciting proposition and it doesn't say much good about the state of the Orioles that this is where they are.
The good news is that if Tillman IS bad, the Orioles should not feel like they "have" to keep him in order to attempt recoup their investment. Tillman is only set to make a reported $3 million guaranteed, with innings incentives that could make that as much as $10 million. A better-run organization would not be tempted by this feeling at all, as it would recognize the importance of accepting when a sunk cost player is hurting you by keeping him around.
The Orioles' actions, including with Tillman last year, have not showed they understand the sunk cost fallacy. The Baltimore Sun's Peter Schmuck summarized the O's dilemma with Tillman at the time Tillman was sent to the bullpen last summer:
The Orioles cannot put Tillman on the disabled list because he says his shoulder is sound. They are not going to designate him for assignment and let him go, because he has done too much for the organization to be thrown aside that way.
If Tillman turns in a bad ten starts and still insists he's healthy, the Orioles will find themselves facing this choice again. The struggling veteran on a one-year deal who has shown no value by June should be released, but when it's a guy who has "done too much for the organization," then what? Let's hope that Tillman pitches well enough that the Orioles are not faced with this problem.
The Orioles starting rotation is probably going to be bad again and Tillman is probably going to be a part of why. But if they're right about him in a way that they haven't been right about an MLB pitcher in several years, I would be happy for both the team and Tillman to prove me wrong.