With a strong outing in Friday’s 3-2 Orioles win over the Braves, it appeared that right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez had assured himself a spot in the Orioles starting rotation come Opening Day, and maanger Buck Showalter confirmed today that Jimenez had earned the fifth-starter spot over Kevin Gausman. Jimenez tossed four strong innings and held the Braves to one run on just three hits. He struck out five and walked only one, and set down the final eight batters he faced in order.
This final outing capped a very strong Spring Training for a pitcher with a lot to prove. Jimenez’s struggles in 2014 have been well documented — 6-9, 4.81 ERA, 5.5 BB/9 — but he showed up to Orioles camp ready to work with no guarantee that he would have a spot in the Orioles’ starting rotation. For a pitcher as physically gifted as Jimenez was early in his career, reinventing oneself just to win a spot as a fifth starter could be demoralizing, but Jimenez did not allow that to affect his demeanor, and for that, he should be applauded.
Showalter had high praise for his fifth starter, telling Eduardo Encina of the Baltimore Sun, “I think you could tell the first day of camp that Ubaldo came in here with a little different-than-normal spring training mindset. Not only did he want to get himself ready for the season, but I think he wanted to [give] a little reminder that this guy at one time was one of the premier pitchers in baseball. None of us are what we once were, but he’s still capable of being pretty [good]. … I know Ubaldo is looking forward to kind of putting last year behind him and it started with the spring.”
Before we get too carried away, heaping praise on Jimenez alone, it is important to remember that he started the spring on about as low a low note as you can. He was rocked for six runs in his Spring debut against the Tigers, and did not last through the second inning. Enter Ramon Martinez.
Pedro Martinez‘s older brother has been a godsend to the Orioles and Jimenez since his hiring as a special pitching instructor. Title aside, Martinez has been most valuable to the Orioles as Ubaldo’s pitching instructor. The older Martinez had a very good 14-year big league career, and in retirement, has turned his attention to helping Latin American pitchers prosper. That will be his long-term role with the Orioles, but the most pressing task at hand was righting the Ubaldo ship.
The two Dominican-born pitchers had a good working relationship prior to the announcement that Martinez would be joining the Orioles. Jimenez and Martinez had first met four years prior, when Martinez was coaching Licey in the Dominican Winter League. The eagerness with which Martinez taught pitching endeared him to Jimenez, so his hire was a logical choice for the Orioles.
Martinez had his work cut out for him. With an unconventional delivery, Jimenez is one mechanical breakdown away from being unable to locate the strike zone. Pitch inefficiency and walks were what doomed him in his first season with the Orioles. His 8.3 K/9 last year, right in line with his career average, shows he still has incredible stuff, but must locate his pitches to have any hopes of being an effective pitcher.
Jimenez realizes his mechanics will be the deciding factor in his success with the Orioles this season. “It’s all about the mechanics,” Jimenez told Encina. “Before my mechanics were so messed up that I couldn’t have good command of the fastball. When I fell behind in counts, I couldn’t come back. I’ve been working with Ramon in spring training [to] get my mechanics right to where they’re supposed to be, staying tall, breaking the hands early so I have time to catch up my arm. That’s why everything is good right now. My mechanics are ready. Everything is feeling the way it’s supposed to.”
Martinez has worked closely with Jimenez to get his delivery back to the tighter, smoother form it took when he pitched for Colorado. So far, the results have been outstanding. In the six starts that have followed Martinez’s arrival, Jimenez has pitched to a 2.88 ERA and walked only six men in 25 innings pitched. He has struck out 21 in the process and yielded only one home run. His last three starts to close out the spring were the most impressive, as he allowed only two earned runs in 15 innings for a 1.20 ERA with two walks and 11 strikeouts.
“I showed him the difference, the difference in last year and in Colorado and then the difference now,” Martinez said, discussing his pupil with Encina. “We got into that and he understood what he was doing. Once he got that, it was easy because he picked it up right away just like that. He’s working with it and feeling comfortable.”
Jimenez must be commended for his willingness to work and reinvent himself. He no longer has the ability to get by on velocity and pure talent. To show a commitment and dedication, even with a guaranteed $38.75 million coming his way over the next three years, speaks volumes to his desire to return to the level of success he experienced earlier in his career. Injuries have sapped him of the 99 mph fastball that routinely left hitters swinging at air, but Jimenez still has all of the tools required to be a valuable asset to a team with World Series aspirations.
The 2014 season was a difficult one for Jimenez, especially given the fact that he was not signed until very late in the offseason. With a stress-free offseason in the books, he has shown a renewed level of commitment to harness his mechanics and rework himself into an effective pitcher. It is written nowhere that a pitcher with nine years in the big leagues must take strides to correct his delivery, and many in the past have not shown a willingness to take that step. Jimenez has, and the results have been impressive.
With the decision to begin the season with Jimenez as the fifth starter, there will undoubtedly be many angry Orioles fans bemoaning the relegation of future ace Gausman to the bullpen. This decision was clearly not an easy one for the Orioles to make, given the obvious potential that Gausman has flashed in parts of two seasons with the team. Jimenez’s contract status does loom large in the equation, but he has clearly shown a willingness to do whatever it takes to win the final rotation spot. With a fat contract signed and guaranteed, Jimenez could have easily rested on his laurels, content with whatever role the Orioles found for him, but he did not. The progress he has shown and work ethic he has exhibited this spring should give the Orioles hope that they will not be left with buyer’s remorse over the final three years of the deal.
This deal may yet prove to be a bargain thanks to Jimenez’s continued work and dedication. There will come a day when Gausman can no longer be denied a spot in the Orioles rotation, but for now, Ubaldo has proven himself worthy of a starting job through hard work, and a willingness to work through the mechanical issues that have plagued him his entire career.