Next Big Thing?

O's Prospect Tillman Turning Heads In Minors

July 10, 2009|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Dan.connolly@baltsun.com

Chris Tillman wanted more eggs for breakfast but couldn't communicate the thought from his high chair. So he grabbed an orange and flung it across the kitchen, hitting his grandmother flush in the back of the head.

Tillman wasn't quite 2, yet he had thrown his first strike.

"He's got an arm," joked Tillman's stepfather, David Sterrenburg. "Even then."

The orange-tossing incident goes down in family lore as the first time Tillman's right arm drew attention.

Nearly two decades later, it still is turning heads.

Considered the Orioles' top pitching prospect and one of the best in all of the minors, Tillman is expected to pitch Sunday in Major League Baseball's prestigious Futures Game in St. Louis. He also was named to the Triple-A All-Star team, but the Orioles declined the invitation, not wanting to overexpose their prized 21-year-old.

That will come soon enough: Tillman is next in line for the big-league rotation and he could be promoted within a month.

"He's really excelled to this point at any level," said Orioles' vice president Andy MacPhail. "I would imagine that if he stays healthy, he'll get his chance at this level."

MacPhail is admittedly conservative with his prospects, and Tillman was supposed to spend most, if not all, of the season at Triple-A Norfolk after excelling at Double-A Bowie in 2008. But his performance with the Tides has altered the timetable.

The youngest member of Norfolk's roster, Tillman is 7-5 with a 2.50 ERA in 16 starts. He has struck out 88 batters and walked just 22 in 86 1/3 innings. In two July starts, he is 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA, throwing 13 2/3 scoreless innings.

How lofty are the expectations for Tillman? He was one of five players the Orioles received from the Seattle Mariners when they traded Erik Bedard in February 2008. Two of the others, closer George Sherrill and outfielder Adam Jones, have made an American League All-Star team. And Tillman is still considered by some to be the jewel of the deal.

"The ceiling is so high on this kid, I don't know what else to tell you," said Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin. "His ability to adjust or adapt to things very quickly at such a young age is phenomenal. I've never had a young pitcher ... adapt and correct things immediately the way he can. It's something you can't teach, it's something he has within himself."

It has a lot to do with Tillman's personality, which Griffin refers to paradoxically as "quiet yet outgoing."

This is the way Tillman explains himself: "I stay quiet when I need to be, but when I am around my friends I'll speak up."

Tillman has always exuded a quiet confidence, a thirst for competition and a love for the outdoors, said Sterrenburg, Tillman's stepfather.

He grew up in Southern California, first in Anaheim and then in Fountain View, near Huntington Beach. Sterrenburg, Tillman and Tillman's younger brother often surf together, though Tillman now prefers to body board, because his 6-foot-5, 195-pound frame is no longer conducive to staying upright on a longboard.

He's also an avid hunter, but his first love is fishing.

"During his high school years, on Friday and Saturday nights, we didn't have to worry about parties," Sterrenburg said. "At 10 or 11 at night he and some buddies would hop the fences at local golf courses and go bass fishing in their lakes. ... That's how he would spend his weekends."

He has upgraded since then, making several fishing trips each winter, including an annual one to Mexico. Fishing is the perfect blend of competition and serenity.

"I love it," Tillman said. "But even if with my best friends or girlfriend fishing, I want to beat them. That just runs in my blood. I don't like to lose."

A three-sport athlete who could dunk a basketball at 13, Tillman gave up football and basketball after ninth grade to concentrate on pitching. He was drafted out of high school in the second round (49th overall) in 2006 and received a $680,000 bonus. The Mariners pushed him quickly, putting him in high Single-A by 19.

When the Orioles acquired Tillman, the primary criticism was that he needed to add a consistent changeup to go with a late-life, mid-90s fastball and hammer-dropping curve.

He and Griffin began working on the changeup last year, when they were together at Bowie. By the second half of the season, it clicked. Now, he considers it his best pitch.

The changeup "was terrible last year," Tillman said. "Now I'll throw it 20, 25 times a game. I am more than thrilled with that pitch, and all the credit goes to [Norfolk catcher] Chad Moeller and Mike Griffin."

Says Griffin of the changeup: "That was the last piece of the puzzle to put into place and it is now in place. Now, he is learning how to use all three pitches in the ballgame."

David Stockstill, Orioles director of player development, believes Tillman could be in the majors right now. But there are still things the club wants him to refine, like throwing fewer pitches per at-bat, holding on runners and fielding his position.

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