Chicago Cubs: Overview of free agent veteran Chris Tillman

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 20: Starting pitcher Chris Tillman
BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 20: Starting pitcher Chris Tillman /

It’s time to check out some other starting pitching options as February has arrived, the Chicago Cubs need a pitcher, and the same free agent lag remains.

It’s February and of course, the stagnant offseason means many free agents are still available. A common first-sentence theme as we still ponder the additional moves the Chicago Cubs make.

Of those players and the same pitchers that’s been discussed, there’s one that you have heard virtually nothing about. The 2017 season was a disaster of a year for Chris Tillman, as he started the year on the disabled list with right shoulder bursitis, missing out on his fourth-consecutive opening day start. He also appeared out of the Baltimore bullpen, the first time in his career he’s made a relief appearance. More on that here.

On the surface — “eh”

The 2017 season was a mixed bag, between stints on the disabled list, paternity leave, and trying to get back to form. Prior to last season, Tillman was a 16-game winner for the Orioles in 2016 and an All-Star in 2013. For his career, he is 73-55, 4.43 ERA, with a 4.66 FIP, spanning 1,118 1.3 innings over nine big league seasons.

More from Chicago Cubs News

With Tillman, he has always had the high ERA and he only has one season with an ERA under three (2.93 in 2012, 15 starts). Walks are also a problem that plagues the 29-year-old, a point-of-emphasis the Cubs would like to correct as a team after last season. And among the priorities for new pitching coach Jim Hickey.

In 2016, his walks per nine were 3.45. Between 2013-17, his 3.33 BB/9 ranks 140th among all qualified starters. Compounding that, Tillman’s walk rate has increased every season since 2014. Interestingly, another free agent, Lance Lynn, is just behind Tillman over that five-year span.

Tillman also does not strike many batters out, a middling 6.90 strikeouts per nine since 2013.


His pitch arsenal includes a fastball topping out in the low 90s (hit 94 mph in his first relief appearance), nearly three miles below the league average. Tillman also throws a cutter, curveball, sinker/change-up, and over the last few years, has dabbled with and become more comfortable with the slider. Baseball Savant provides nice, in-depth charts of his pitches you might be curious about.

As the market should start to get active as pitchers and catchers report in a few weeks, it makes sense for teams that are major players on Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta to see how that plays out before turning their attention to a guy like Tillman.

Some familiarity

Should the Cubs actually look his way, he would assume the fifth spot in the rotation and is a likely better option than Brett Anderson.

I know that sentiment does not inspire much confidence.

Though Tillman doesn’t appear to be anyone’s first choice, the Cubs, and this time, Hickey might be able to turn another former Oriole around. Tillman was Orioles teammates with Cubs reliever Pedro Strop, and of course Arrieta. Plus there’s the AL East familiarity, as Hickey’s Rays faced Tillman’s Orioles multiple times, dating back to 2009.

Besides some of the good and bad on Tillman’s résumé, and while this may not ultimately sell you on Tillman as an attractive candidate, if anything might, it’s that he would likely be among the cheaper options available. Not that money is an issue for the Cubs.

Next: Several pitchers working their way up in the minors

In November, MLB Trade Rumors projected Tillman would sign for one year at $10 million. With the Chicago Cubs waiting and seeing on other options, but also possibly afraid to dip too deeply into the large free agent contracts for pitchers, Tillman could be a good stopgap option. He has stayed relatively healthy in his career, with last year’s trip to the DL just his third instance.

Tillman represents a curious buy/low, high-upside pitcher for any team.  I’m curious to see who can get him back towards his norms, as 2017 could just be one ugly outlier.