For most of the spring it appeared that the second component of the Erik Bedard trade would play a prominent role on the Orioles. Baseball America rated Chris Tillman the No. 22 overall prospect this off-season, and he stood a good chance of breaking camp as the team’s No. 5 starter behind Kevin Millwood, Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Matusz, and Brad Bergesen. On Tuesday, though, the Orioles announced that David Hernandez, and not Tillman, would be the team’s fifth starter. Tillman will head down to AAA where he can continue honing his craft with an eye at a mid-season call-up.
Both Hernandez and Tillman pitched for the Orioles last year, and they put up similar numbers. Both had ERAs around 5.40 and FIPs north of 6.00 with BABIPs around .300. Hernandez struck out more batters but also walked more and also pitched more innings. That’s not to say that they’ll continue pitching similarly. The hope, of course, is that Tillman turns into a top of the rotation arm, settling in behind Matusz and alongside Bergesen. That might be part of the reason for naming Hernandez the fifth starter. The Orioles can afford to take their time with pitchers they don’t feel are fully developed.
Hernandez, a 16th round pick in 2005, displayed excellent strikeout skills in the minors, striking out more than a batter per inning at every level. His walk rate jumped around, from 4.40 at low-A to 2.91 at advanced-A to 4.53 at AA. Even so, his FIP remained low at all levels, under 4.00. His ERA finally followed at AA in 2008, 2.68 against a 3.43 FIP. He took an even bigger step forward in 2009 at AAA, striking out 12.40 per nine while walking just 2.83, good for a 2.62 FIP and 3.30 ERA. That earned him the call-up.
The Orioles have taken their time developing Hernandez. He pitched just 145 innings in his first two professional seasons, followed by 141 in his fourth. Then again, that might not have been by design. Hernandez averaged under 5.1 innings per start through his first three professional seasons. In 2009 the Orioles upped his innings a bit, to 162.2. Yet he still averaged only 5.1 innings per start. He also averaged almost 19 pitches per inning at the major league level, something he’ll have to improve upon if he’ll factor into the Orioles rotation in the future.
Tillman, a 2006 second round pick by the Mariners, put on a display last season at AAA. In 96.2 innings he posted a 2.70 ERA with a 2.76 FIP to match. He struck out more than a batter per inning while keeping his walks to less than 2.5 per nine. When the Orioles started auditioning young starters at the end of the season he was a natural fit, though again his performance at the major league level didn’t produce great results. He allowed too many home runs, 15 in 65 innings, but he also had a high 15.2 HR/FB ratio. Given his performance throughout the minors, though, Tillman will probably dominate upon his return to AAA. If any of the youngsters behind Millwood and Guthrie struggles, Tillman could be the first replacement.
While the Orioles are not in a position to contend this season, it does not mean that they have to throw all of their best young pitchers into the fire. This is part of the reason they acquired Kevin Millwood. He provides some solidity at the top of the rotation, affording the Orioles as much time as they need to develop the future of their rotation. They’re already using youngsters Matusz and Bergesen, and will likely use Tillman, only 22 years old, at some point this season. Hernandez is a bit older and further along in his development, making him a fair choice as the No. 5 starter. If he fails, Tillman won’t be far behind.