As a general rule of thumb, I tend to question the sanity of those who espouse conspiracy theories, hunt for Bigfoot, or put too much stock in Spring Training statistics. However, there is no getting around the fact that Ubaldo Jimenez is having a putrid spring for the Baltimore Orioles. The line so far this spring for the pitcher who signed a $50 million contract with the Orioles last winter is not pretty.
In 7.1 innings, Jimenez has pitched to a 11.05 ERA, allowed nine hits, walked five, hit three, and struck out eight. Oh, and throw in three wild pitches for good measure. Posting a double digit ERA is typically not the best way to go about nailing down a spot in a rotation for a team coming off a division championship season.
Yes, I realize these shoddy starts must be taken with a grain of salt. Jimenez is working through an overhaul to his ever erratic pitching mechanics. An inconsistent delivery is fine when you have the ability to dial it up to 99 when needed, as Jimenez could earlier in his career. As the innings have piled up, though, the 31-year-old’s fastball has lost quite a few ticks. In 2014, the average velocity of an Ubaldo Jimenez fastball was 90.6 MPH, a far cry from the 96.3 MPH he posted during his 2010 All-Star season. Losing nearly six ticks on the radar gun must change the way you attack hitters, and kudos to Jimenez for understanding this.
Jimenez was never one to exhibit great command of his pitches, even in Colorado. He has led the league in wild pitches twice, including his 19-8 season with the Rockies. That is all well and good when you can tickle triple digits. Now that Jimenez sports a league-average fastball, things need to change, and quickly. In his first season with the Orioles, Jimenez walked 5.5 per nine, the worst rate of his career. If the Orioles are to get any value from their pricy free agent signing, that must change.
For his part, Jimenez does seem to be getting more comfortable with his new delivery. If you have seen an Ubaldo Jimenez start prior to this spring, you are familiar with his wide open delivery. Now, he is working on staying more compact and upright.
Despite getting cuffed around a bit by the Blue Jays in his most recent start, Jimenez felt good about his new delivery, “Toolwise, I was able to put everything in the game, the things that I’ve been working on,” he said. “My mechanics, I think it’s been the best because I had really good command of the fastball. … I felt really comfortable out there. I could throw the fastball wherever I wanted, inside or outside. I felt good.”
For their part, the Orioles are saying all of the right things about Jimenez. Manager Buck Showalter has been upbeat and positive when discussing his pitcher, “Hopefully it’s a sign that each [start] is going to get a little better. He’s put in a lot of work in the offseason. He’s been open to a lot of things. Top to bottom, he’s done a lot of things in the offseason that he hasn’t done before. Usually those guys — doing the things he’s trying to do — usually get a return for it. I couldn’t be happier with his effort and the want-to part of it.”
That being said, the Orioles cannot afford to give Jimenez five starts in April to figure himself out. The Red Sox and Blue Jays both figure to be much tougher competition in 2015. Jimenez went 0-4 in five April starts last season. That made no difference on the standings a year ago, as the Orioles ran away with the division title. This year, it may not be such smooth sailing. Four losses in April may make all the difference come September.
The first three spots in the Orioles rotation are locked up by Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, and Bud Norris. Jimenez, Miguel Gonzalez, and Kevin Gausman are in a three-man race for the final two spots. Right now, it appears to be a race that Jimenez is losing.
The peripherals will tell you that Gonzalez is due for a regression following a season in which he posted a 3.23 ERA. When it comes to Gonzalez, you can take your acronyms and analytics and have them. This guy is a gamer who finds a way to get outs. Yes, he is a fly ball pitcher prone to the home run, but he has been a consistent force in the Orioles rotation however you want to slice and dice the numbers. Gausman is the Orioles’ former number four overall pick. He got his first extended run in the Majors last season, and did not disappoint. While he needs to work on pitch efficiency to get deeper into games, excluding Gausman from the rotation would be a mistake. The Orioles have missed on quite a few highly drafted pitchers in recent years, but Gausman does not appear to be destined to join the ranks of Adam Loewen, Daniel Cabrera, and Hayden Penn.
That leaves Jimenez on the outside looking in when it comes to the starting rotation. Orioles management took a big gamble signing a pitcher with a clearly downward trend in velocity and bad mechanics. The contract cannot be allowed to cloud their judgement when it comes to finalizing the rotation. To do so could hinder the Orioles hopes of making a second consecutive trip to the playoffs for the first time since 1996-1997.
The Orioles left Jimenez off their postseason roster last year, so I do not see this being an issue. Ultimately, the best decision will be made despite the fact that Jimenez is still owed $38.5 million. The Orioles could start Jimenez in the bullpen, but that would be a colossal waste, as the control issues he faces make him unusable in anything but mop up duty. A better option, in my opinion, is to force Ubaldo to swallow his pride and start the season in the minors, where he can continue to work on his mechanics in a no-risk setting.
The one saving grace Jimenez may have going for himself is Gausman’s electric turn in the bullpen last October. In the playoffs, Gausman was virtually untouchable as a reliever. In 31.0 career innings out of the pen, spanning both regular and postseason, he has 36 strikeouts and a 2.90 ERA. There could be a case made for using Gausman as a setup man in light of the loss of Andrew Miller. The Orioles already have arguably the best bullpen in the league, and the addition of Gausman for a full season would only cement that status.
Jimenez clearly still has great stuff, when given the chance to use it. Despite the aforementioned loss of velocity, his strikeout rate has been consistent year over year. I previously mentioned the dreadful April Jimenez had last season, but in May, he pitched to a 3.12 ERA and struck out 9.9 hitters per nine. If the Orioles are going to stick with Jimenez, they need to prepare themselves for a roller coaster ride.
Jimenez figures to see four more starts before the end of Spring Training. Each will be a chance to prove to the Orioles that he deserves a spot in the starting rotation. Yesterday’s start can be seen as a step in the right direction, but there is still a great deal of doubt surrounding his ability to hold a spot in a major league rotation. Hefty contract or not, Ubaldo Jimenez is in serious jeopardy of being left out of the Orioles starting rotation.