As dawn breaks on a new baseball season, all eyes are already on the Orioles' starting rotation.
The Birds are well aware that their success or failure in 2016 could hinge on their starting staff, just as their 2015 season was torpedoed by a struggling rotation. The Orioles' 4.53 starters ERA was second worst in the American League, nearly a full run worse than the 3.61 ERA posted by the 2014 AL East-winning Birds.
Two of the biggest culprits of the Orioles' 2015 pitching collapse were right-handers Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez, both integral members of the rotation who struggled throughout the season. After combining for a 68-37 record and 3.44 ERA from 2012-14, Tillman and Gonzalez went 20-23 with a 4.97 ERA in 2015. The O's went 27-30 in games they started.
It was a surprising turn of events for a pair of pitchers who had formerly been two of the Birds' top success stories.
Tillman's and Gonzalez's journeys to the majors could hardly be more different. Tillman was the more highly regarded of the two, a second-round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners in 2006 and the prized pitching prospect sent to the Orioles in the Erik Bedard trade Feb. 8, 2008.
Gonzalez was signed as an amateur free agent by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2004 but endured several injuries -- most notably Tommy John surgery -- that left him toiling in the Mexican League until the O's signed him as a minor league free agent March 4, 2012.
Despite their different backgrounds, though, Tillman's and Gonzalez's careers have been inextricably linked. Their simultaneous arrivals in the Birds' rotation in 2012 marked a turning point in the franchise's recent history.
On July 4, 2012, the Orioles were in the midst of a West Coast road trip in a mini-freefall, having lost 10 of their previous 14 games. That night in Seattle, Tillman came up from the minors to make his first big league start of the season. His prior three stints in the major leagues -- which included 12 starts in 2009, 11 in 2010 and 13 in 2011 -- had all gone poorly, as he posted ERAs of 5.40 or higher each year.
But during his 2012 debut, Tillman pitched the game of his life. He overpowered the Mariners -- his former organization -- from start to finish, blanking them into the ninth inning while allowing just two hits and striking out seven. If not for a ninth-inning error that allowed two unearned runs to score, Tillman might've thrown his first career complete game. Even still, he cruised to victory.
Two nights later, on July 6, Gonzalez made his first major league start. Just like Tillman, Gonzalez's start came against the team that first employed him -- in his case, the Angels. Gonzalez was just as dominant, giving up one run while pitching seven strong innings. Adding to the emotion of the evening, Gonzalez was wearing the glove of late Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, Gonzalez's friend and minor league teammate who was killed by a drunk driver in 2009.
Tillman and Gonzalez never looked back after their stellar debuts. Both remained in the Birds' rotation the remainder of the season, making 15 starts apiece. With their help, the Orioles' starting staff sliced its ERA to 4.01 during the second half of the season after posting a 4.77 first-half mark.
From that point on, Tillman and Gonzalez were mainstays in the O's rotation. Tillman emerged as the Birds' most reliable starter, posting back-to-back 200-inning seasons in 2013 and 2014 and earning an AL All-Star selection. Gonzalez wasn't quite as durable -- making 54 starts to Tillman's 67 during those two years -- but was no less effective, leading O's starters with a 3.23 ERA in 2014.
That all changed in 2015, though, when both hurlers were left scrambling for answers.
"I think that both guys are probably as disappointed as everybody," pitching coach Dave Wallace said. "But it always looks worse than it is. There's times last year when things could've gone better. Sometimes the ball didn't bounce their way, especially Chris. I think Chris was the victim of a lot of things during the game. Some seeing-eye base hits, some bloopers falling in, and then it works on you mentally a little bit, you're looking for the negative and stuff."
Tillman's numbers declined across the board in 2015. His ERA (4.99), WHIP (1.387), hits per nine innings (9.2) and walks per nine (3.3) all were his worst marks since 2011, and his strikeout rate (6.2) was his lowest since 2010. On the surface, there doesn't seem to be a clear explanation for the 27-year-old's poor season. He didn't suffer any major injuries, and he had no drop in velocity.
For Tillman, though, his struggles could be boiled down to one simple statement.
"I didn't pitch as good," Tillman said. "I think that's what it comes down to. I didn't execute, and I think it all comes down to execution, like I said all year. That's something that I'm going to have to get better at if I want to get back to where I was."
Manager Buck Showalter, for one, thinks Tillman will learn from his 2015 struggles.
"You realize how fleeting this all can be from year to year," Showalter said. "Just because something happened last year doesn't mean it's going to happen this year. The other 29 teams don't always cooperate with you. So I'm proud of the way he handled it. He's a very competitive guy, and I think there's still some good baseball, some good pitching ahead of him. He may look back at  as a real building block."
Gonzalez's 2015 campaign, meanwhile, was a tale of two seasons. During his first 12 starts, he was his usual effective self, posting a 3.43 ERA. But he went on the disabled list with a right groin strain, June 11. Once he returned June 25, Gonzalez wasn't the same pitcher. He was torched for a 6.53 ERA during his final 14 outings with just three quality starts, strongly suggesting that he was still trying to pitch through the injury. Gonzalez went back on the shelf in September but returned to make one final appearance Sept. 30.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
"At the time he said, ‘No, I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine,'" Wallace said. "And then, once we addressed that issue and he came back, he said, ‘You know, I'm glad we took this time off and I got back.' And I think it was important for Miggy, the last week of the season, to get in and pitch a couple innings so that he headed into the offseason knowing he was OK."
After a full offseason to heal, Gonzalez, 31, expects he'll be back to his normal self in 2016.
"I think if I'm healthy, I'll be able to perform and give our team a chance to win ball games," Gonzalez said. "I'm ready to go. Obviously, I finished with an injury last year and came back and threw one of the last games and felt a little better. But now I'm feeling good."
According to Wallace, Gonzalez could improve not just because of his health, but because he continues to gain experience in the major leagues.
"I think it's just a matter of being consistent, especially with his fastball and his command," Wallace said. "He did have better command the previous two years, but it comes and goes. And as Buck said so many times, the process of becoming a consistent major league starter doesn't happen in one, two or three years. It takes probably 800 to 1,000 innings, and that's four, five, six years."
Both Tillman and Gonzalez are penciled into the Orioles' projected 2016 rotation, joining fellow righties Yovani Gallardo, Ubaldo Jimenez and Kevin Gausman. During the winter, the O's lost their best 2015 starter -- lefty Wei-Yin Chen -- in free agency, increasing the pressure on Tillman and Gonzalez to step up their game.
"The work is never done," Tillman said. "I think it's a work in progress. It doesn't matter whether you've got 10 years in or two years in. You've got to keep working. The answers aren't right in front of you. You've just got to go out and get it done."