Baltimore Orioles: Extension talks with Tillman probably mean nothing

The Baltimore Orioles have opened up dialogue with Chris Tillman‘s side about a contract extension. Will the talks go anywhere?

According to Eduardo Encina of the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore Orioles and right-hander Chris Tillman began discussing a long-term contract extension on Tuesday. The talks are very preliminary at this point, but the Orioles are at least showing an interest in keeping the 28-year-old Tillman around for more than one more season. Extension talks were started and eventually tabled after the 2014 season.

Tillman enters 2017 as the de facto ace for the Orioles yet again. He went 16-6 with a 3.77 ERA last season, with a 1.285 WHIP, 2.12 SO/BB, and 4.23 FIP. Tillman had started the season 14-2, but faltered down the stretch as he was hampered by shoulder inflammation. Over the past five seasons, Tillman is 65-33 with a 3.81 ERA. He has started at least 30 games every season since 2013, and has struck out 7.0 per nine while walking 3.1 per nine since establishing himself in the big leagues.

If the Orioles are serious about getting a long-term deal done with Tillman, they should proceed with caution. Though he will be only 29 when he hits free agency, there have been troubling signs the past two seasons. After throwing over 200 innings in 2013 and 2014, Tillman has failed to top 175 the past two years due to minor injuries. When injuries do flare up, his performance has typically suffered dramatically. Minor back and ankle injuries hampered Tillman in 2015, and he went 11-11 with a 4.99 ERA. Last season, after looking like the team’s first 20-game winner in decades, he went 2-3 in August and September with a 5.03 ERA and significantly lower strikeout numbers.

For years, Tillman has defied the sabermetricians and the FIP stat thanks to his ability to induce soft contact in the air. Even with the advances in batted-ball technology, quantifying a pitcher’s ability to give up fly balls but not doubles and home runs is still not an exact science. Still, there is more than enough evidence that everything must be perfect for Tillman to get ace-like results without frontline stuff.

The Orioles have still never given a starting pitcher a contract for more than four years and $50 million. The ugly Ubaldo Jimenez contract will have to be blown away to keep Tillman in Baltimore. Rick Porcello got four years and over $80 million from the Boston Red Sox, while Homer Bailey landed a six-year extension in Cincinnati for $105 million. Mike Leake, a pitcher with similar career numbers to Tillman, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for five years and $80 million last winter. The only thing that could work in favor of the Orioles is Tillman not wanting to bet on himself. Otherwise, he is better off taking the $10-11 million in arbitration this year and testing the open market.

Peter Angelos has never broken the bank to pay a starting pitcher, and he is unlikely to start now. Chris Tillman is a solid, steady pitcher, but the continued hesitancy by the ownership group to try and put the current roster over the top to do more than contend for a Wild Card is disheartening. The window for the Orioles is perilously close to closing, and keeping Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Adam Jones, and Tillman beyond 2018 is looking like a huge impossibility.

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Chris Tillman is a very solid pitcher, but not the type the Orioles will finally break all of their nebulous and cautious rules for. They have seen firsthand what happens to Tillman when his body and mechanics start breaking down, and years four and five of a long-term extension may not be pretty. The Orioles smartly passed on re-signing Wei-Yin Chen, and the first year of his $80-million deal in Miami was disastrous. If, by some small miracle, Tillman is willing to accept a team-friendly deal this winter, the Orioles should jump at the chance. If not, which is far more likely, Chris Tillman will enter free agency in 2017 along with Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, and Wade Miley, leaving a massive void in the Orioles rotation.

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