Whose Spot Will Tillman Take?

It’s pretty much been announced that Chris Tillman will be called up to the majors once the Orioles come back to Baltimore – likely to face the Royals in his first start. Tillman has been fantastic at Triple-A this year, posting a 2.70 ERA (and 2.76 FIP) on the strength of the very good strike-out rate he’s always had (9.22 K/9) and a much improved walk rate (down from 4.31 BB/9 to 2.42 BB/9 in 2009). For a flyball pitcher, he hasn’t given up many home runs (0.47 HR/9) and that’s something it is likely to regress once he makes it to Camden Yards.  Still, despite only being 21 years old Tillman has pretty clearly shown that he’s ready to face some stiffer competition. The Orioles’ rotation hasn’t been particularly good – so there’s definitely a spot for him – but which current starter is likely to to lose his spot? Jeremy Guthrie is the team’s nominal “ace” – even though he has a 5.54 FIP and 5.41 tRA – so unless some team still thinks that he’s actually the 3.50 ERA pitcher he looked like the past couple years and offers the O’s some nice prospects in a trade, he’s not going anywhere. Brad Bergesen has been the best starting pitcher on the team who’s actually logged some innings (Koji was still better in general) and as long as the team doesn’t want to shut him down to keep his innings relatively low (he pitched 165 innings last year and is already at 110 in the majors with 11 more in the minors) he’s going to keep making appearances. Rich Hill’s 7.32 K/9 is easily tops amongst O’s starters, but then so is his 6.02 BB/9. The 7.36 ERA is unsightly, and the 5.13 FIP and 5.48 tRA are better but still bad. There was a hope that Hill could get passed whatever his problems were last year with the Cubs, but that hasn’t happened. The only thing keeping him at all afloat is that batters didn’t swing at balls against him last year (10.8% of them) and they are some this year (19.6%, though still below the average of 25%). He’s throwing almost the same percentage of balls as last year (50.3% and 50.1%) and he can’t get strike one (just 47.1% of the time in ’09 and 47.3% of the time in ’08). As I’ve said many times, his curveball is still great but the lack of fastball command has really hurt him. With his control I don’t see any way you can put him in the pen. I suppose the team could try sending him down to the minors and risk someone claiming him on waivers, or maybe a “phantom” DL trip with as long of a “rehab” in the minors as they can manage. It’s hard to give up on a lefty with quality stuff, but I don’t know how long the team can stick with Hill without seeing some improvement. Jason Berken won his first start and is 0-8 since then. He hasn’t been quite that bad though, with a 4.75 FIP and a 5.81 tRA. Berken was never going to be more than a back-of-the-rotation starter, and that’s about what he’s been. FanGraphs’ Pitch/FX shows his “stuff” as about average – for example, his fastball is 92.1 mph compared to 91.7 mph for the average fastball, and it has almost exactly average movement (-6.1 horizontally, -6.0 is the average, and 8.5 vertically, 8.7 is the average) – and his control and HR prevention are around average (3.36 BB/9, 3.51 is the average, moderately lucky 0.96 HR/9, 1.03 is the average). He’s not striking many people out (just 4.79 K/9) and that’s the main thing keeping him back. In his 2007 season at High-A Ball he struck out 7.39 per nine, and in 2008 he had 7.72 K/9 at Double-A. I’m not sure what the deal is. I was wondering if it had to due with batters seeing him a couple times and then knocking him around, but his OPS against by batters in their first look at him in a game is .861; the second time it’s .759; and the third time it’s .910. Small sample size and all that, but still it’s not a huge jump or anything. Scouts were never particularly enamored with him, so expectations aren’t high. My opinion is that it’s worth keeping him in the majors to really find out if he stick as a starter or whether he’s going to end up a long-reliever sooner rather than later. David Hernandez is putting up similar stats to Berken (4.97 K/9, 3.55 BB/9, 0.95 HR/9, 4.49 FIP, 5.24 tRA), which is a little odd since the book on Hernandez in the minors was that he would K a ton of guys (12.4 K/9 in Triple-A this year) but had spotty control (2.83 BB/9 this year, 4.53 BB/9 last year). I imagine the strike-outs will come, since he throws pretty hard (93.1 mph) and gets a lot of movement on his slider. He doesn’t have Tillman’s ceiling, but I don’t think he has much to prove in the minors anymore either. Of the three guys under serious consideration, Hernandez is the only one I really see contributing to the team in three years. I guess I’d say that if Andy MacPhail thinks he can get Hill through waivers he should send him down. Otherwise I guess I’d send Berken down until another spot opens up (unless Koji comes back soon, though I’ve heard he might be out until September). In any case, Tillman stands a decent chance of being an upgrade over the results the O’s are getting now. It is nice to have actual pitching prospects to bring up too, instead of the Chris Waterses and Victor Santoses of the world.