Former Top Prospect Chris Tillman May Be on the Trading Block

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According to Drew Silva over at Hardball Talk , the Baltimore Orioles, via MASN’s Roch Kubatko, “would be willing to” deal young RHP Chris Tillman this offseason.

Tillman, as Silva correctly points out, was among the best prospects in baseball only a few seasons ago: Baseball America ranked him as the sixty-seventh best prospect prior to 2008 and the twenty-second the following year, 2009.

So, what would inspire the Orioles, a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 1997, to deal Tillman – or at least explore the idea – a mere three seasons removed from being the among the top two dozen prospects in baseball, ahead of several budding stars like Eric Hosmer, Carlos Santana, Andrew McCutchen, and Austin Jackson?

It’s easy to see why Tillman first started climbing up the prospect charts: during his first four minor league seasons, 2006 through 2009, the six-foot-five righty struck out 437 batters in roughly 398 innings (9.87 SO/9) and walked 172 (3.88 BB/9).

Playing in the hardened California League, a league that turn often turns good pitching stats into mush, the then 19-year-old Tillman posted a 5.26 ERA, but his peripheral stats – 9.2 SO/9, 0.9 HR/9, and 2.19 SO/BB – remained strong.  However, his less-than-stellar walk rate, 4.00 BB/9, remained a slight concern.

Tillman was promoted to Bowie in the Eastern League the following season, 2008, his first season in Baltimore.  There his ERA, 3.18, began to normalize in a more typical offensive setting (the average runs-per-game for the EL in 2008, 4.62, was almost a full run lower than the Cal League average the previous season).  He was able to maintain solid strikeout (10.2 SO/9) and HR (0.7 HR/9) rates while maintaining his walk rate from the previous season.  Oh, yeah, Tillman’s age, 20, was four years younger than the average hitter that season in the Eastern League.

He continued his meteoric rise the next season: in 18 starts with Norfolk, he went 8 – 6 with a 2.70 ERA, 9.2 SO/9, and, perhaps most importantly, his walk rate, 2.4 BB/9, took a solid leap forward. All of which earned him a 12-game cameo with the parent club.  His big league debut, to say the least, was, well, rather ordinary.  In 65 innings that season, he won two games, lost five, posted 5.40 ERA, and his strikeout rate, 5.4 SO/9, was almost half that of his minor league totals.  Remember: he was barely 21-years-old.

Tillman’s 2010 season was fairly similar to his previous year: he more than held his own in the International League, which, of course, earned him an 11-game stint in Baltimore.  Except: his strikeout rate, 7.0 SO/9, in the International League was the lowest of his minor league career.  But, and it’s a fairly big one, his command continued to progress (2.2 BB/9).

Baltimore continued to yo-yo the young righty this season as well.  He started 15 games for Norfolk and 13 for Baltimore.  And his overall numbers aren’t pretty – at least on the outside.  With Norfolk, his strikeout rate continued to decline; his walk rate spiked to almost one free pass every other inning and he averaged 2.0 HR allowed every nine innings.   And his numbers with Baltimore– 6.7 SO/9, 5.52 ERA, and 75 ERA+ – look, well, unimpressive.  But digging deeper, you’ll see an evolution of sorts, one that includes Tillman taking several positive steps forward.

Tillman’s K-rate, 6.7, was a marked improvement over his previous big league numbers and it was only slightly below the league average; his walk rate was also a large step forward, as was his swing percentage.  Yes, it’s true his velocity has declined since his first season in the big leagues – it’s down to 89 mph, a three mph drop since 2008 – but he’s evolving as a pitcher, one who’s only 23-years-old.  Oh, his SIERA (Skill Independent ERA) was more than one-run less than his actual ERA.

Trading Tillman now would be a mistake.  He’s young, is beginning to miss more bats while walking few hitters, and, truthfully, what do the Orioles have to lose?  Nothing.  Why trade a young pitcher who is quite possibly beginning to turn the corner?

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