Chris Tillman's shoulder is hurting, and that's bad for the Orioles. For now, he may only be required to miss one start. Clearly that's what the Orioles are hoping.
Tillman has had quite a bounce-back year (arguably the best of his career), and it's come when the O's need him most. Tillman was awful last year, and yet the O's said goodbye to both Wei-Yin Chen via free agency and then Miguel Gonzalez at the end of spring training and proceeded anyway with mostly in-house solutions (plus Yovani Gallardo). That left an early season combination of Tillman, Kevin Gausman, Gallardo (pre-injury), Ubaldo Jimenez, Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, and Vance Worley receiving starts. Tillman has been the best of that group by far, and Gausman is the only other to perform like an above-average starter.
It would be tough to ask for much more than what Tillman has provided, and he's a big reason why the O's are still in the race for first place in the AL East. There's no question that losing him for any extended period of time would be a tough pill to swallow. It seems likely that he'll be back soon, but lingering shoulder pain isn't anything to gloss over.
And yet, Tillman's absence wouldn't necessarily lead to a collapse or an end to the Orioles' postseason chances. I see two reasons to stay optimistic: Dylan Bundy and an improved offense.
Last night's start isn't the best example, but Bundy has far exceeded expectations this season. Many fans (myself included) were simply hoping that Bundy would stay healthy and just pitch reasonably well out of the bullpen. He did that, seemingly improving each month, and then entered the rotation after the all-star break and hasn't looked back.
It's easy to marvel at Bundy's ability to both make it all the way back to the majors and pitch well. Still, the O's may also have painted themselves into a corner by inserting him into the rotation so soon. Perhaps the O's limited Bundy's innings and pitches at the beginning of the season specifically with the intent of turning him loose as a starter, but even if they wanted to remove him from the rotation, they wouldn't be able to do that now unless they drop out of the race or he gets hurt. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, but it's impossible, at least right now, to not be worried about Bundy's long-term health every time you watch him pitch.
Adding Bundy to the rotation seemed like a desperate move, but it's undoubtedly given the rotation a shot in the arm. Even after dropping both games at home to the Red Sox, the O's are still in the division race, and Bundy will play a part in what happens in the next few weeks.
With Bundy and the serviceable Wade Miley, the O's are at least better positioned to deal with Tillman being out for a while than they were before the break. Worley would likely take Tillman's place, or perhaps Jimenez. No one wants to see Jimenez in the rotation again, but it's not like someone like Gallardo is pitching all that much better. It's still surprising to see the pass Gallardo gets with fans when he's pitching just as poorly as Jimenez did in 2014.
The rotation was terrible in the first half of the season, though, and the Orioles still performed well as a team. It's difficult to repeat that level of success, but it's at least possible. And a big part of that was the team's ability to score runs. Overall, the rotation has been better in the second half, but the offense has been stagnant. The (reasonable) excuse early on was a few of the team's players (Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, etc.) were battling illness after the break, and that led to some offensive issues. But the poor results have been staggering.
The O's scored 5.1 runs per game in the first half. So far in the second half, they have scored 3.5. And after posting a collective wRC+ of 111 in the first half, the O's have a wRC+ of only 76 in the second half. Four regulars -- Jonathan Schoop (56 wRC+), Davis (52), Wieters (50), and Mark Trumbo (43) -- have been particularly bad. Nolan Reimold has a wRC+ of 7 in 54 plate appearances. (What exactly does Reimold bring to this team? He's not a platoon bat, and he's maybe an average defensive outfielder. I've always rooted for Reimold to recover physically and play well, but it's time to move on.)
Things can always get worse -- remember, we're talking about what happens if the O's best starting pitcher misses multiple starts -- but you'd have to figure the O's lineup is due for a turnaround very soon. But if not, and the meager results continue, the O's chances won't look that good even with Tillman's shoulder all ready to go and him firing on all cylinders.