SARASOTA, Fla. — Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman knew his next outing would be five innings in a minor-league game Sunday to continue to stretch out his arm.
He didn't know he'd be officially doing it as a member of Orioles' minor-league camp.
The 23-year-old was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Saturday morning before the Orioles' Grapefruit League game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton. Tillman will open the season as a starter at Norfolk.
"He's made strides," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Tillman's maturity level and everything else, he's so close to putting it together. There's a reason why he stayed here as long as he did. He's made a lot of strides. I like where he is. I expect him to have a big year."
Tillman allowed five runs (four earned) and 12 hits with 6 strikeouts and 3 walks over 12 1/3 innings in five appearances this spring. That included three outings of three innings or more.
As camp winded down, and the Orioles' starting rotation became clearer, it became obvious that Tillman's only way of making the team would be as a long reliever. But the organization felt he would be better off in a regular starting role in Triple-A.
"He needs the ball in his hand," Showalter said. "He's got some things he needs to finish off, and he knows it. He's shown flashes of really being a force. I'd be disappointed if he doesn't have a good year, if he doesn't start well down there."
"I'm here to help this team anyway I can," Tillman said Saturday before he was optioned. "I went into the offseason with that mentality and I wanted to get better. Last year, I was inconsistent; it was like one good game, one bad game all year. I want these guys to be able to trust me any time I get out there. Either way I can do it, I'm more than happy doing it."
The move leaves 15 pitchers vying for 12 spots on the Orioles' Opening Day roster. It also means the team's No. 5 starter will either be lefty Brian Matusz or lefty Tsuyoshi Wada.
This is Tillman's final minor-league option.
Neshek impressing O's
Right-hander Pat Neshek, a non-roster invitee who hasn't allowed as run in nine relief innings this spring, said he finally feels healthy again after having Tommy John surgery in 2008.
This spring, he's shown he's regained his velocity, his control and his confidence.
"I feel a lot better than last year," Neshek said Saturday, a day after making his first back-to-back appearance of the spring, a perfect 2/3 of an inning against the Tigers. "I kind of feel where I was before the surgery. Last year, there were flashes of 88-89 [mph], in maybe a real good game 90. That was very few. This year it seems I'm doing it at ease, like I'm hitting 88 without putting much into it, and that's the pretty cool thing about it, because last year I was probably about 85-86."
It will still be difficult for Neshek to make the Orioles' 25-man roster out of camp, because he's signed to a minor-league deal and can easily be sent to Triple-A Norfolk. Plus, the team would need to allocate a 40-man roster spot for him. But the 31-year-old said he's fine with starting the season in the minors.
"The biggest thing is just feeling good and knowing that I think I will be successful," Neshek said. "That's really all that matters. It would be nice [to make the team], but if not now, then in a month or two. You really want to look at the end goal."
With the Padres last season, Neshek, who owns one of the more unconventional sidearm deliveries in baseball, struggled with his control — which was one of his strengths during his seasons as the Twins' setup man. But this spring he has seven strikeouts and no walks.
"I think I'm there," he said. "I'm really happy. It's only taken three years. I was talking to Luis Ayala and he had Tommy John and he said it took him four years. After last year, you start saying, Man, I'm putting everything into this and I'm not getting anywhere. You want to keep going but it's tough, I don't know what happened this offseason."
Said Showalter: "The pure velocity is not all the way back, but it's better than it was last year. He presents a different look to what people are used to seeing so there are not a whole lot of good swings off of him.
Simon reacts to being placed on waivers
Right-hander Alfredo Simon said he was told by his agent Friday evening that he has been placed on waivers, a move he said didn't necessarily come as a surprise to him.
"I'm not really surprised," Simon said. "I didn't think they were going to put me on waivers, but I understand he has a lot of pitching and the guy they need to put in the rotation and everything. So, I just wait for the next three days and see what's going to happen."
Simon said his agent told him he would be claimed. In the meantime, Simon was still slated to pitch three innings in a minor-league game on Sunday. Simon, who was initially one of the Orioles' starting rotation candidates, was hurt by missing nine days with a groin pull. In his only Grapefruit League outing since, he allowed six runs in two relief innings on Wednesday.
"I understand the situation," Simon said. "That's the business and I have to handle whatever is going on. I have to handle it because I've been in that situation before. It's nothing new for me. I know the situation here is a little tough. They feel like they don't have any spot for me. I understand that. Just see what's going to happen if another place is going to pick me or not."
Orioles sign Hoffmann to minor-league deal
The Orioles signed outfielder Jamie Hoffmann to a minor-league contract Friday afternoon. Hoffman elected to become a free agent after being outrighted by the Rockies earlier this month.
He had two brief major league stints with the Dodgers, including four at bats last April. Last year at Triple-A Albuquerque, Hoffman put up a .297/.356/.497 line with career highs in homers (22) and RBIs (84).
"I've been working out every day," Hoffman said. "I just haven't seen any live pitching for a week, a week and a half now. But I'm feeling pretty good. Well-rested. Let's just put it that way. Usually, you're not well-rested in spring training, but that's where I am right now."
Hoffman played in Saturday's game and struck out in his lone at-bat.
"This is a whirlwind for me," he said. "I just signed yesterday and I've been moving around, but I think I'm going to be over here. Minor league camp ends tomorrow, so I'll come over here and back up and see if I can get some at-bats."
Another tie for Orioles, 6-6
The Orioles set a preseason record — with research dating back to 1996 — with their sixth tie Saturday against the Pirates. The Orioles trailed by one run in the eighth when Aaron Baker homered against his former organization.
"It beats beating the losing record, right?" Showalter quipped.
Jake Arrieta, who still has not been officially named by Showalter as the club's Opening Day starter, allowed six runs in five innings. He gave up two homers, both on changeups, but the velocity on his fastball was consistently at 95, 96 mph.
"Gave up a few hits, but it was all right. It wasn't great," Arrieta said. "I was pretty upset with my changeup. Wasn't really good at all today. … But command was good, everything was pretty good."
Ronny Paulino and Jai Miller each homered, and closer Jim Johnson pitched a scoreless inning in the first time he has had consecutive outings this spring.
Around the horn
Right-hander Tommy Hunter is slated to pitch six innings in a minor-league game on Sunday. … Jason Hammel and Wada will throw in Tuesday's exhibition against State College of Florida. The Orioles will provide pitching for both teams. … In Wednesday's exhibition at Triple-A Norfolk, the Orioles will take the No. 4 and No. 5 starters from Class-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie to help with pitching. … Right-hander Jason Berken, who has been optioned to Norfolk, will pitch for the Orioles in that game, Showalter said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Dan Connolly contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times