After an abysmal start to the spring that left his ERA north of 11.00, Ubaldo Jimenez has righted the ship in his three most recent starts, and is making things interesting as the Orioles look to set their rotation for the regular season. Yesterday, Jimenez had his best outing of the spring thus far, pitching five shutout innings while striking out three and walking none in a 9-2 victory over the Pirates. This was not a watered down Pirates lineup, and the list of strikeout victims included 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and up-and-coming outfielder Starling Marte.
Jimenez’s first season in Baltimore was hampered by his inability to throw strikes consistently. A positive sign from his start yesterday was the fact that he threw 49 of his 67 pitches for strikes. That is a very good percentage, and could be taken as a sign that Jimenez is becoming more comfortable with his revamped delivery. After leading the American League in walks for much of the season before losing his rotation spot, Jimenez has walked only one batter in his past 13.0 innings this spring.
He realizes the importance of throwing strikes on a consistent basis, saying after yesterday’s start, “It feels really good because it makes you comfortable and more confident for your next outing. … I’ve been able to do what I’m supposed to do in the last two games, and that’s command the fastball. I’m ahead in the count, and I stay ahead.”
Orioles fans who were worried after the first two Ubaldo duds this spring had every reason to feel that way. In his first 3.1 innings in starts against the Tigers and Twins, Jimenez walked five and hit two batters. The difficulty of going through a mechanical change prior to the start of your tenth season in the majors cannot be underestimated. Early this spring, Jimenez was clearly relearning his delivery and the results were not pretty. As muscle memory kicks in, his delivery appears more compact and fluid.
There are still concerns aplenty when it comes to Ubaldo Jimenez in the Orioles rotation. He has surrendered a .290 batting average in his five starts this spring. His ERA still sits at 6.06 even after five shutout innings yesterday. The importance of throwing strikes consistently cannot be stressed enough. Now, Jimenez must show he still has the ability to actually get outs. He is still striking out close to a hitter per inning, but surrendering hits at an alarming rate, as evidenced by his 1.47 WHIP this spring. Jimenez has figured out the strike zone with his new delivery, but now needs to turn his attention to missing bats.
The final two spots in the Orioles rotation will come down to three pitchers: Jimenez, Kevin Gausman, and Miguel Gonzalez. Gausman has mostly been kept to the back fields this spring, and has made only one start with the Orioles regulars. With the need to spread innings around, just getting time on the mound should be enough for Gausman. Gausman needs to be given a shot at a full season in the starting rotation, in my opinion. This will be his third season with the Orioles, and it is time to see what the team really has on its hands in Gausman, their 2012 first-round pick.
Gonzalez has proven to be a consistent winner for the Orioles despite less than overwhelming velocity and a propensity to give up the home run. There is no arguing, however, with a three-year run of success that has left Gonzalez with a career 30-21 record and a 3.45 ERA. It may be smoke and mirrors, but it’s working. This consistency should assure Gonzalez a spot in the rotation as the Orioles fourth starter.
Ultimately, the Orioles battle for the fifth spot in the rotation will come down to what the front office wants to do with Gausman. If his innings total continues its gradual increase, Gausman should be in line for approximately 190 innings this season. Gausman is 24 this season, and has been handled carefully his first two full seasons of professional baseball. In my opinion, the Orioles need to take the bubble wrap off Gausman and give him a full season to show his abilities as a starting pitcher. That is what he was drafted to do and where his greatest value lies. Keeping him in the bullpen to allow Jimenez to work through his issues would be a mistake and would only serve to slow the development of an up-and-coming pitcher.
The fact that Ubaldo Jimenez has showed the ability to throw strikes this spring is good, but the fact that he is still getting knocked around the yard cannot be ignored. His drop in velocity is marked, and he has not been able to prevent hits. The Orioles’ best option is to view Jimenez as a sunk cost and let him languish as a long reliever. Before the end of Spring Training, Jimenez should get two more chances to impress. I would not count on him doing enough to win the job outright from Gausman. The only way I see him in the Orioles starting rotation is if management decides to tread carefully with the youngster.