Hernandez or Tillman?

Opening Day is, mercifully, right around the corner and the Orioles roster is prety much set. Roberts is back at the top of the order; Reimold and Wieters are starting to hit; the bullpen fog is starting to clear; God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. But recently the fifth spot in the Orioles starting rotation has become a battleground.

From pretty much the beginning of camp everyone pretty much assumed that the starting rotation would feature Chris Tillman in the fifth slot. Tillman, part of the now legendary Bedard deal, is a fantastic young pitcher with great upside. He has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues but still has a lot to learn at the ML level.

Enter David Hernandez. Hernandez is three years older than the 21 year-old Tillman and made a name for himself in the Orioles’ minor league system as a strike-out pitcher. Last year at AAA Norfolk Hernandez K’ed 79 batters in just over 57 innings, giving him a K/9 ratio over 12 – the reason that Hernandez got the call last summer.

While in the majors the two pitchers had similar stats. Both put up ERAs just over 5.40, both struck out about 6 batters per nine innings; both had unimpressive SO/BB ratios. They both played like young, high-talent pitchers that mixed struggles with flashes of brilliance.

Fast forward to this spring. Hernandez has pitched very well:

 W  L  S  ERA   G GS CG SHO    IP   H   R  ER
1 1 0 3.00 5 2 0 0 15 17 5 5

So has Tillman:

 W  L  S  ERA   G GS CG SHO    IP   H   R  ER
0 3 0 3.86 5 4 0 0 16.1 14 8 7

Essentially we have two very similar pitchers vying for the last spot in a rotation that hopes to be among the best in the league. Anchored by a solid Kevin Millwood and a (hopefully) stable Jeremy Guthrie allowing young phenoms Bergesen and Matusz to shine.

Where do I fall in this debate? Thank you for asking internet – I’ll tell you.

Frankly, I think it is a coin-flip. I think that, right now at least, Hernandez and Tillman are very similar pitchers. Notice I said “right now”. Tillman has nothing but upside while Hernandez is probably not going to be much different than he is right now. Hernandez’ ultimate destination is probably the bullpen – but do we allow Tillman, who may not be ready to take the ball every five days to go out there and struggle his way through a half a season’s learning curve?

There are valid arguments on both sides of the issue. First, if this season is about wins over development then you obviously go with Hernandez. Hernandez has proven that he can run with the big boys and has had a great spring. His strike-out pitch seems to have been found leading Orioles pitchers this spring with 20 K’s. Hernandez also garnered a lot of attention and praise after his last start against the Red Sox A-team where he kept the pace of the game moving and got out of jams without losing his composure. He has earned the spot this spring.

But the again, Hernandez has been pitching like the pitcher he is most likely destined to be: A short-stint power bullpen arm. The rub against Hernandez has never been his stuff, it has been his ability to pitch the amount of innings needed to be a viable starter in the AL East. Tillman is not a bullpen pitcher, and he has nothing left to prove in AAA sending him down would be a waste of time and energy. He won’t learn to control the ML game in Norfolk so he should start and Hernandez should go to the pen.

Honestly, the second option is the most logical to me. Tillman is destined to be a starter Hernandez is destined to be in the pen, they are similar pitchers right now if Tillman continues to struggle Hernandez can easily step in. But there is no use in sending Tillman to AAA or putting him in the pen where he will essentially just be wasting away. Starting Tillman allows everyone to maximize their potential in their future roles and while Tillman may have had a less-than-stellar spring it is unfair to throw out his starting history and judge him on less than 20 innings pitched.

Official stance: Hernandez in the pen, Tillman in the five-hole.

PS: How great is it to have this debate? It wasn’t that long ago Orioles fans were being forced to debate the merits of Eric DuBose and Matt Riley. Andy MacPhail said it best:

“We have guys competing for spots, not spots competing for guys”

Because of that Orioles fans should feel very very confident going into the regular season about this team not only for 2010 but going into the future.