The Orioles have reached out to impending free agents Chris Tillman and Wade Miley to explore the possibility of retaining them on incentive-laden one-year contracts, reports Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun. MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko wrote earlier this morning that such an agreement with Miley seems unlikely and suggests that their talks may not have been especially recent. Talks with each free-agent-to-be are characterized as “preliminary” by Encina, if not “procedural.” Still, the Orioles need to add at least two arms this offseason, so even early talks with a pair of potentially outgoing rotation members are at least notable.
Tillman, 30 next April, has been a mainstay in the Baltimore rotation since 2013 but battled shoulder troubles en route to the worst performance of his career in 2017. Tillman’s season didn’t get started until mid-May after he was slowed by a bout of shoulder bursitis, and his subsequent struggles at one point cost him his spot in the Orioles’ struggling rotation. Overall, in 19 starts and five relief appearances, Tillman limped to a 7.84 ERA with a career-low 6.1 K/9 against a 4.9 BB/9 mark that rated as the second worst of his career.
Miley, 31 in two weeks, has a $12MM club option on his contract, though Baltimore is widely expected to instead pay a $500K buyout after a dismal 2017 campaign. The southpaw did notch the second-best K/9 mark of his career (8.12), but his 5.32 BB/9 was easily a career-worst. Miley’s HR/9 rate of 1.43 was also the highest of his career. Given the rapid ascent of his walk and home-run rates, as well as the 5.61 ERA he posted in 157 1/3 innings, it’s hardly a surprise that the O’s aren’t expected to pay that $11.5MM difference between his option and buyout to retain him.
MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko has recently reported that Miley would prefer a return to the National League, and Encina implies as much as well, calling a reunion with Tillman more likely than one with Miley. That said, it still strikes me as perhaps unlikely that Tillman would return on a deal with a “low base salary,” as Encina hears the Orioles have suggested. Though Tillman’s 2017 results were unsightly, last winter’s market saw names like Derek Holland and Tyson Ross — the latter of whom made just one appearance in 2016 — sign for $6MM bases. Andrew Cashner secured a $10MM guarantee on the heels of his own dreadful 2016 season, and he didn’t come with Tillman’s steady track record.
While it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Tillman sign a contract with plenty of incentives baked in, it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll have to settle for all that modest of a base salary when considering the guarantees attained by Holland, Ross, Cashner and aging veterans R.A. Dickey ($8MM) and Bartolo Colon ($12MM) last offseason.
Even Miley may not have to settle for all that low of a base; while he’s a year older and is coming off a pair of rough seasons, he’s also averaged 31.5 starts per season dating back to 2012 and has never made fewer than 29 starts in a season (with the exception of his rookie campaign in 2011, when he was called up to the Majors in late August and totaled 40 innings of work). Troublesome results aside, a club with a spacious home park in the National League could pay for his durability and hope to achieve better run-prevention numbers in a more pitcher-friendly environment.
If Tillman and Miley do ultimately land elsewhere this winter, it’s still likely that the O’s will land another pair of arms. GM Dan Duquette has been candid about his team’s needs in the rotation and voiced a preference to reel in at least one left-handed starter, which (speculatively speaking) could put names like Jaime Garcia, Jason Vargas, Hector Santiago and Francisco Liriano on the team’s free-agent radar.
With roughly $120MM on the books for next season (including projected arbitration salaries), the Orioles will have some room between that mark and 2017’s year-end payroll of roughly $166.6MM. But, adding two to three arms to the rotation and perhaps exploring some outfield and/or bullpen depth could also send that figure north in a hurry.