The Orioles’ biggest splash of the 2014 offseason and arguably most important free agent acquisition in years, RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, is not perfect. He walks four batters per nine innings. His ERA has been over 4.6 in two of the last three seasons. He has been plagued with velocity dips, mechanical struggles, and some just plain bad results at multiple intervals throughout his career.
Consistency has not been his M.O. and the former Colorado Rockie and Cleveland Indian has been one of the more enigmatic starters in the majors over the last decade for both opponents and his own pitching coaches.
So why then, is this the move that the Orioles wanted to make? Long story short, it wasn’t. A. J. Burnett and Bronson Arroyo were definitely higher on the Orioles’ wish list than Jimenez as the Orioles extended offers to both pitchers while Jimenez remained a free agent. Either of the pair would have represented a more consistent player for a shorter term contract.
One could also reasonably speculate that the Orioles could have been interested in other free agent starters Tim Hudson and Bartolo Colon, who each signed two-year deals for an average annual value comparable to the reported Jimenez contract and would not have required the Orioles to forfeit the number 17 pick in the draft.
But, after months of waiting, the Orioles made the best move they could have at this point in the offseason by signing Jimenez. Despite all of the struggles listed above, he’s gone through stretches where he could be considered one of the best pitchers in the game. Most notably, Jimenez finished third in the National League Cy Young voting in 2010, registering a WAR of 7.5 and ERA+ of 161, striking out 214 batters (8.7 SO/9), and all while pitching in one of the most volatile hitter’s parks in baseball, Coors Field.
Jimenez has pitched more than 198 innings three times in his nine year career, and has eclipsed 176 IP or more every year since 2008 despite his control issues. Over the last six seasons, Jimenez would have placed first three times and second three times in IP among Orioles’ starters.
And while Jimenez will regress from his stellar second half of 2013, when he posted an ERA of 1.82 and averaged 10.7 SO/9, there is hope that Jimenez has rediscovered his old form and will not revert to the poor mechanics that led to his worst seasons in 2011 and 2012.
My biggest concern about the Jimenez signing is his ability to play in the AL East, one of the most patient hitting divisions in baseball. If Jimenez cannot find his control teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox, who finished first and third, respectively, in MLB last year in team walks, Jimenez will see more than his share of early exits. Last year, Jimenez averaged 17.32 pitches per inning, which was the fourth most in baseball. If he hopes to reduce that number while facing walk-happy AL East hitters, Jimenez must find the strike zone more consistently and challenge hitters to put balls in play against the best defense in baseball history.
That’s where new pitching coach Dave Wallace comes in. Early reports from Orioles spring training refer to a new system Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti have introduced to try to improve control. Pieces of string around home plate create a smaller, more precise target that have drawn positive reviews.
“Dave and Dom wanted me to go over there and focus on commanding my sinker,” LHP Zach Britton told MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko. “It’s more of a visual. Instead of throwing at the catcher’s glove, you can pick out the little target. It’s not about throwing to the glove, it’s about picking out spots. It’s more of a visual aid and something we’re going to do.
“I can see progress with being able to make an adjustment with the command of my sinker. It’s something we’re going to hammer out this spring and make sure that, by April, that command is where I want it to be.”
In addition, the bio-mechanical analysis the Orioles have invested in over the last few years should help Jimenez iron out the mechanical issues that could have been contributing to his lack of control and, at times, reduced velocity he has experienced throughout his career.
It’s not easy to teach a 30-year-old established frontline starter new tricks, but if anyone has the tools to do it, it’s the Orioles. It will be up the Orioles staff just as much as it’s up to Jimenez to rediscover the Cy Young candidate he once was.
We found out last year that record setting defense plus top-five offense isn’t enough to make the playoffs without decent starting pitching. This move gives the Orioles a chance to take advantage of the opportunity those two pieces provide.
The Orioles signing of Jimenez is a risk, especially considering the four-year length of the deal, but it’s a move the Orioles had to make out of respect for the 2014 club. At his best, Jimenez is the top of the rotation starter the Orioles need for a playoff push. If Jimenez is able to capitalize on his potential, the Orioles should be able to capitalize on theirs.