Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Baltimore Better with Ubaldo

Baltimore is banking on Jimenez to be a front-of-the-rotation guy
With Spring Training heating up and the offseason winding down, the Baltimore Orioles made their biggest splash of the winter by signing Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal. Jimenez figures to bolster the Orioles' so-so rotation, which compiled a 4.57 ERA and .776 opponents' OPS last year.

First-off, it's interesting that Jimenez got almost the exact same deal as Ricky Nolasco, who received four years and $49 million from the Twins in early December. Like Nolasco, Jimenez has been something of an enigma throughout his career. Seeing as how they both debuted in 2006 and have made virtually the same number of starts (Nolasco has started one more), they make easy and natural comparisons. Here are some of their career numbers:

Nolasco: 89-75, 4.37 ERA,  97 ERA+, 1.29 WHIP, 3.76 FIP, 3.52 K/BB,  10.8 bWAR,
Jimenez: 82-75, 3.92 ERA, 112 ERA+, 1.35 WHIP, 3.78 FIP, 2.05 K/BB, 20.4 bWAR,

Nolasco's peripherals are better, but you have to give the edge to Jimenez for keeping more runs off the scoreboard. His ERA is nearly half a run lower than Nolasco's, which is really impressive considering how many games Jimenez pitched at Coors Field. Throw in the fact that Nolasco's one year older, and I'm kind of surprised they wound up with identical contracts. If given the choice, I'd rather have Jimenez.

Especially since, at their respective bests, Jimenez was far and away the superior pitcher. Jimenez, you might recall, was one of the best pitchers in the game not too long ago. In the first half of 2010 he was about as dominant as any hurler has ever been, setting the MLB record for lowest ERA (0.78) through his first 11 starts. He was 15-1 at the All-Star Break and started the Midsummer Classic, helping the National League win for the first time since 1996 by delivering two shutout innings. The Cy Young award was his to lose, and at 26 it looked like he had finally come into his own and was about to dominate the league for the next half decade.

Then, without warning, his career went off the tracks. He slumped in the second half, crashed hard in 2011 and hit rock bottom in 2012. Jimenez led the majors with 17 losses that year, but more importantly his control completely abandoned him. He uncorked 16 wild pitches--most in the American League--and saw his walk rate balloon to nearly five batters per nine innings. To make matters worse, on those rare occasions when he did throw strikes he got rocked, giving up more than a hit per inning and surrendering 25 home runs. At the time, it was fair to wonder whether he would ever be a capable starting pitcher again.

Ubaldo Jimenez was broken in 2012 and remained broken for most of 2013. His ERA stood at 4.67 on the Fourth of July. Then something clicked. After that, it was 2.01. Cleveland won all six of his starts in September, hardly a surprise given his 1.09 ERA that month. On the regular season's final day, he delivered a gem, striking out 13 Minnesota Twins and allowing only one run in six and two-thirds innings. Terry Francona's Indians won easily, 5-1, clinching the AL wild card to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007.

Thanks to his furious finish, Jimenez posted the highest strikeout rate (9.6 K/9) and K/BB ratio (2.43) of his career, which helped yield his second-best ERA (3.30). More importantly, he trimmed almost a full batter off his walk rate and got his WHIP down to a more manageable 1.33. Like John Lackey and Jon Lester in Boston or Francisco Liriano in Pittsburgh, Jimenez bounced back and contributed to his team's massive turnaround. His ERA was the best of any Indian who pitched at least 100 innings, and he ranked second on the team in strikeouts, wins, and innings to Justin Masterson.

But rather than stick around and try to help Cleveland get over in the hump in 2014, he opted out of the last year of his contract, hoping to make bank off his rebound season. Sure enough, Dan Duquette came calling at the 11th hour to salvage what had been an otherwise uneventful offseason for the Orioles.

But is this a smart move by Baltimore? Your guess is as good as mine. Jimenez is 30, after all, and has lost nearly four miles off his fastball since 2010 (which may explain why only one of his past seven half-seasons can be characterized as good). He wasn't an ace to begin with, and moving to a much tougher division as well as a hitter-friendly ballpark means he's bound to regress. The general consensus on FanGraphs is that he's going to be worse in 2014 than he was in 2013, and I agree. Any way you slice it, Duquette's taking a pretty big risk on a pitcher who looked totally lost for most of the past three seasons.

On the bright side, his 3.43 FIP and 3.62 xFIP suggests last season's success was not a fluke. He got a little lucky with his stand rate and still walks too many batters, but should be effective so long as he keeps missing bats. Baltimore has a pretty good bullpen and defense, not to mention a great skipper (Buck Showalter) and strong defensive catcher (Matt Wieters), so Jimenez is in good hands.

So while his recent track record isn't encouraging, Jimenez should make the Orioles better. He's a clear upgrade to the starting rotation and will likely add about two or three wins to a team that could really use them given their position on the win curve. He probably won't put them over the top in what figures to be a very competitive AL East, but he could be the difference between Baltimore making the playoffs this year or missing them again. I don't love this deal because I'm not optimistic about Jimenez's future, but in the short-term it looks like a win for the O's.

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