Feb. 21: Tillman will earn a $1MM bonus for reaching 125 innings and 150 innings, reports FanRag’s Jon Heyman (Twitter link). He’d earn $1.5MM upon reaching 175 and 190 innings and an additional $2MM for crossing the 200-inning barrier for the first time since 2014. Heyman adds that some of the incentive payments are deferred, but any deferrals would be voided with a trade.
Feb. 19, 10:42am: Kubatko tweets that Tillman can earn another $7MM via incentives, meaning the deal can max out at $10MM.
10:18am: The Orioles are in agreement on a contract that will bring right-hander Chris Tillman back to Baltimore, reports Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports (via Twitter). Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun tweets that it’s a big league contract, and Dan Connolly of BaltimoreBaseball.com adds that it’s a one-year deal.
Tillman, a client of the Beverly Hills Sports Council, receives a $3MM guarantee, according to Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com (all Twitter links). Kubatko adds that Tillman is taking his physical this morning and, unsurprisingly, can boost his salary via performance bonuses for innings pitched.
The 29-year-old Tillman will return to the only organization he’s known as a Major Leaguer. The former second-round pick (Mariners, 2006) has spent parts of the past nine big league seasons pitching for the Orioles since coming to Baltimore alongside Adam Jones in the 2008 Erik Bedard blockbuster.
Last season was the worst full season of the veteran Tillman’s big league career, as the long-time rotation stalwart opened the year on the disabled list due to bursitis in his throwing shoulder and seemingly never made a full recovery. Tillman struggled to a ghastly 7.84 ERA in just 93 innings due to that ailment, posting the worst full-season averages of his career in strikeouts (6.1 K/9), walks (4.9 BB/9) and home runs (2.3 HR/9). His average fastball velocity (90.7 mph) dropped by a full mile per hour from 2016 as well.
Those undesirable results notwithstanding, the Orioles did well to bring Tillman back on a modest $3MM base. Last offseason, for instance, rotation rebound candidates such as Tyson Ross and Derek Holland each landed $6MM contracts, while Andrew Cashner took home a $10MM guarantee from the Rangers. That said, shoulder issues tend to throw up significant red flags for clubs, and several potential suitors for Tillman have already made rotation acquisitions this offseason (e.g. Mike Fiers to the Tigers, Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, Jaime Garcia to the Blue Jays).
Tillman joins Cashner, whom the Orioles signed to a two-year deal worth $16MM last week, as the second arm added to a rotation that was in dire need of some veteran additions entering the offseason. Baltimore had as many as three vacancies to fill, and GM Dan Duquette has said in the past that he’d like to add a left-hander to the mix, so it’s possible that there’s another addition yet to come. Assuming he passes his physical, Tillman will slot into the rotation behind Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy and the newly signed Cashner, giving Baltimore a fairly experienced quartet of arms on which to rely.
If he’s healthy, Tillman could very well be among the best of that bunch, too. From 2012-16, he started 143 games for the Orioles and worked to a 3.81 ERA with 7.0 K/9 against 3.1 BB/9 and 1.1 HR/9 with a 40.2 percent ground-ball rate. He doesn’t need to replicate those numbers to justify a commitment ranging from $3MM to $10MM, of course; if he can merely provide 30 mostly serviceable starts, he’ll be well worth the investment for the O’s.
Even with Tillman and Cashner on board, the team still faces an uphill battle in competing with the Red Sox and Yankees for a division crown. A healthy Tillman increases their chances of remaining competitive but also gives the team a potential trade chip midway through the year should Baltimore find itself facing a sizable deficit in the standings. The team’s ability to compete in the season’s first half will be among the most fascinating storylines to follow, as if the Orioles are out of contention come July, they’ll have tough decisions to make not only on Tillman but on free-agents-to-be Brad Brach, Zach Britton, Adam Jones and Manny Machado.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.