Hernandez in, Tillman out as Orioles' fifth starter

Top pitching prospect to begin season at Triple-A Norfolk

March 31, 2010|By Jeff Zrebiec | jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

SARASOTA, Fla. — - Chris Tillman saw it coming, but that didn't make it any easier to accept. So as the 21-year-old discussed the most difficult day of his young career, his eyes became watery and his voice cracked.

Tillman, who is considered one of the organization's top young pitchers, arrived at spring training as the clear favorite to win the fifth starter's job. However, he was informed Tuesday that the job would go to right-hander David Hernandez, and he would begin the season at Triple-A Norfolk.

"I wouldn't say I'm blindsided, but I did expect more of myself, obviously," Tillman said. "I didn't pitch as well as I probably should have. It is what it is."

Orioles manager Dave Trembley unveiled the rest of his rotation Tuesday, and there was little suspense. Jeremy Guthrie will follow Opening Day starter Kevin Millwood, and Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen and Hernandez will occupy the third, fourth and fifth slots, respectively, with Bergesen scheduled to throw in the home opener against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 9.

The first four were essentially set 5 1/2 weeks ago when spring training began. At that time, team officials conceded that Tillman had the inside track on the No. 5 spot even though there would be an open competition that included Hernandez, 24, and Jason Berken, 26, who will be in the team's Opening Day bullpen.

"I don't think Chris lost the job. I think David earned the job," Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said. "We all know the nature of pitching. There will be plenty of shuffling back and forth over the course of the year. I think it would be a surprise to everybody if Chris doesn't pitch in the big leagues. It's not a question of if. It's a question of when."

Tillman had a 3.86 ERA in five spring outings, but he allowed 14 hits, walked nine and struck out 10 in 16 1/3 innings. Hernandez, meanwhile, compiled a 3.00 ERA in five outings, surrendering 17 hits and three walks and striking out 20 in 15 innings.

They both had uneven rookie seasons in 2009 with Tillman going 2-5 with a 5.40 ERA in 12 starts and Hernandez compiling a 4-10 record and a 5.42 ERA in 20 outings. Though Tillman clearly has the better prospect's pedigree, team officials felt that Hernandez was much better prepared to handle being in the big league rotation now.

"What I told [Tillman] was what we're doing is the best thing for the team and his development," Trembley said. "He was put in a situation last year where he came up to the big leagues because of need. We had an awful lot of injuries. ... He's going to be a fantastic major league pitcher for a long time. But there are some things that he needs to get better at, and we'd rather see him do that in Triple-A than in the big leagues at this particular point in time."

While praising the improvements that Hernandez has made, MacPhail said the demotion shouldn't be considered a setback for Tillman.

"He is way ahead of schedule - I mean way ahead of schedule," he said. "He's been pushed along fast his entire career, and he's handled it at every level. I had no intention of promoting him last year, but we had a series of injuries and he was pitching well enough in the minor leagues where he earned the opportunity to pitch here."

Tillman, who will start in a minor league game Thursday, said he will use the time to work on being more consistent and try to perfect the cut fastball that he was experimenting with this spring.

"I think if I were to stick with my fastball, changeup, curveball, it would have been a totally different outcome," Tillman said of his spring numbers. "I was working on my cutter. I'm excited - I think the cutter's going to help me."

Meanwhile, Hernandez's solid spring can be traced to the improvement of his breaking ball and better fastball command. Hernandez, a high-ball pitcher who had put up huge strikeout totals in every league he had played in before the majors, had a subdued reaction to the news, undoubtedly aware of the way Tillman was feeling two lockers away. The two are friends, having come up through the minor leagues the past two years together.

"There was definitely shock value. I was surprised, to be honest," said Hernandez, who will leave the club today to attend his grandmother's funeral in California but return to camp in time to pitch Saturday. "It's everybody's dream to be on a major league roster, let alone on the Opening Day roster. It's something special.

"I felt like I was not the lead candidate going in, but you can't look at it like that. That just makes you want to work harder. Hopefully, I pushed Tillman to get better and I pushed Berken to get better. [Tillman's] going to start plenty of times. There's no doubt about it. He's that good of a pitcher."

While team officials insisted that Hernandez was going to get a fair shot in the rotation competition, he didn't make his first start until March 16, nearly two weeks into the Grapefruit League schedule.

"Hernandez has come into camp looking and pitching with more confidence," Trembley said. "His breaking pitch has improved. He's had a good camp. We feel like he's ready to take the fifth slot and let's go."

Season opener:

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