It’s hard to believe, but at one time Ubaldo Jimenez was the Orioles’ biggest off-season move, and an indication to fans that Dan Duquette was in a ‘win now’ mentality. However, after a less-than-impressive start to the season and a month on the disabled list, Orioles management is saddled with the task of finding a roster spot for a player who is making too much to release, yet may not contribute as much as the player he would replace.
On July 5th, Jimenez made his last start for the Orioles before heading to the D.L. after rolling his ankle in the parking lot. Orioles’ management would never say it, but this may have been a fortunate break. Jimenez, who had been the most inconsistent starter to date, was coming off one of his worst starts of the season, allowing 4 runs in 3.2 innings and walking 6 batters in the process. On top of that, he had also failed to pitch into the seventh in eight of his last ten starts.
There are a lot of contributing factors, but frankly the Orioles have been a better team since Jimenez’s injury, specifically the pitching staff. Since July 5th, the Birds have gone 17-9 against six teams with a better than .500 record. Also, the Orioles pitching staff has held opponents under 5 runs in twenty of those games. Again, there are a lot of factors involved in the Orioles winning stretch since Jimenez’s injury, but it’s obvious that Jimenez hadn’t shown any sign of being able to contribute to a winning ball club at that point.
Now with Jimenez’s return almost here, the Orioles must make a decision on what to do with their over-paid veteran. Barring any injury, it’s hard to find any way Jimenez could break into the Birds’ starting five who have pitched so well recently. The idea of a six-man rotation has been rumored, although it seems incredibly unlikely given the fact that the Orioles lack innings-eating starters, and a sixth starter would take an extra arm away from the bullpen. Also, Jimenez’s awkward mechanics don’t seem to allow him to consistently throw quality strikes, so any mid to late inning relief roles for Jimenez are out of the question.
The obvious role would be spot-starter and long-reliever, at least until his performance or injury would force him back into the rotation. However, that role is already occupied by T.J. McFarland, who has pitched to a 3.18 ERA and allowed only two runs in five innings in his lone start this season. It’s hard to see any evidence in this season’s performance that Jimenez can be more productive in that role. It’s also important to note that the Orioles now have four lefties in their bullpen, and can afford to use McFarland in any situation rather than save him for match-ups later in games.
What’s left for Jimenez may be the most expensive pitcher in recent memory whose only job is to eat innings during blow-outs or when the bullpen has been over-used in previous games. But at this point, it’s hard to imagine that role being essential enough for a roster spot on a division-leading team, while at the same time pushing a player off the roster who could contribute in a more significant role.
Again, management would never say this, but Jimenez’s month on the D.L. was probably a benefit for the Orioles. For one, the rehab starts in the minors gave the Orioles’ coaching staff time to work on the mechanical issues that seem to be plaguing him. However, the main advantage may be that it gets them closer to September and the expanded roster. Jimenez may come back from the D.L. and be the dominant pitcher he was in the second half of last season, but if he remains inconsistent, the expanded roster will allow the Orioles to hide him in the larger September bullpen.