By James Bailey
If there’s a team that can afford to let Chris Tillman learn on the job, it’s the Orioles, who are already all but mathematically eliminated from contention. The young righthander was the latest O victimized as the Giants pounded him for six runs in two innings Monday night.
That jacked his ERA up to 8.40 in 15 innings, covering four starts. He’s now 0-3 with a 2.20 WHIP. It’s a step back from his 2-5 record and 5.40 ERA in 12 starts as a rookie last year. Tillman came to camp with a shot at the No. 5 job in the Orioles rotation, but wound up opening the season back at Triple-A Norfolk, where he went 5-4 with a 3.12 ERA and strong 1.16 WHIP in 57.2 innings. He struck out 47 and walked just 12, nearly a 4-to-1 ratio.
That progress has not been evident since his recall in late May. He’s walked eight and struck out seven while allowing 25 hits as an Oriole. Most of the damage has come in two starts. In addition to Monday’s mauling he was raked over by the Red Sox for four runs in 1.1 innings on June 4. In his next start he rebounded to pitch six innings against the Yankees, though he surrendered eight hits and three walks while striking out one.
How patient will the Orioles be with one of their top young arms? Given their 17-47 record, it doesn’t make much difference whether it’s Tillman or recently demoted Brad Bergesen taking the abuse, but they need their starters to work a little deeper into the game.
Should they decide he needs a return ticket to Norfolk, there is plenty of reason for optimism, and one doesn’t need to look much beyond their American League East counterparts to find it. Clay Buchholz and Phil Hughes both required multiple return visits to Triple-A before establishing themselves in the majors last year. They have emerged as young aces for the Red Sox and Yankees this season.
Buchholz was 23 when the Red Sox summoned him for the first time in 2007. He went 3-1 with a 1.59 ERA in 22.2 innings, tossing a no-hitter in his second big league start. The No. 4 prospect on Baseball America’s Top 100 list the following spring, Buchholz broke camp with the big club. After a solid, if somewhat erratic April, things quickly fell apart. A return to Triple-A seemed to get him back on track, but he struggled again in the majors and was eventually dropped all the way to Double-A. He finished the ’08 season with a 2-9 record and 6.75 ERA in 76 big league innings.
After opening the 2009 campaign back in Pawtucket, he returned to Boston last July and settled into the rotation, mixing promising starts with a few blowouts, but taking the ball every fifth game. He wound up the year with a 7-4 record and 4.21 ERA in 16 starts. That was nothing compared to the work he’s done thus far in 2010. Through 12 starts he’s 8-4 with a 2.52 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP in 78.2 innings. He tossed a complete game shutout in that June 4 game in which his Sox crushed Tillman.
Hughes reached the majors at 20, going 5-3 with a 4.46 ERA in 72.2 innings for the Yankees in 2007. The righthander ranked 4th on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list prior to the ’07 season, the last time he was eligible for the list. The Yankees handed him a spot in their rotation in 2008 and after a fair start a fractured rib unraveled his season and he spent more than half the year on the disabled list. He finished his second season at 0-4 with a 6.62 ERA in 34 innings. He opened 2009 at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and went 3-0 with a 1.86 ERA in three start to earn a ticket back to New York. He got a brief trial in the rotation before moving to the bullpen and becoming one of the top setup men in the AL.
Over the winter there was much debate over Hughes’ role. In the end, the Yankees moved him back to the rotation, and he has made them look smart over the first two months. Hughes is 9-1 with a 3.11 ERA and a sterling 1.13 WHIP through 12 starts. In 75.1 innings he has struck out 74 and walked just 22.
So Oriole fans shouldn’t give up hope on Tillman. He’s not quite ready for prime time just yet, but that doesn’t mean he won’t get there. He’s still just 22 years old, and he figures to be part of the turnaround in Baltimore when it finally arrives.