27 January 2014

O's Running Out of Time to Upgrade Rotation; Jimenez Would Make Sense

You may not have given up on the Orioles' offseason yet, but we're almost to that point. Now that Masahiro Tanaka and Matt Garza have been signed, only Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Bronson Arroyo remain as starting pitchers who would upgrade the rotation in a noticeable way. (A.J. Burnett does not seem like he's going to pitch this season.) You could argue that even signing one of those guys would be too little, too late, considering how the Orioles have remained on the sidelines while top-tier free agents signed elsewhere.

The Orioles' strategy this offseason has been confusing at best and misguided and embarrassing at worst, but that's something we will get into in the near future. There's plenty to discuss.

Arroyo and Burnett have already been covered by Camden Depot, but Santana and Jimenez have not. This post will focus on Jimenez.

Jimenez, who recently turned 30, would give the Orioles a solid option to go along with a thin rotation of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris (or Kevin Gausman, or Zach Britton, or T.J. McFarland, etc.). He would likely be the team's de facto ace, with Tillman being his only real challenger. Jimenez is no longer the same pitcher from 2008 through 2010 with the Rockies, when he struck out a little over eight batters per game, kept his HR/9 down despite pitching in Colorado, and had a groundball percentage near 50%. But he's still quite good, and he has seemingly turned things around after a disappointing 2012 season with the Indians.

Year Age Tm ERA IP H R ER SO ERA+ HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
2006 22 COL 3.52 7.2 5 4 3 3 145 1.2 3.5 3.5
2007 23 COL 4.28 82.0 70 46 39 68 112 1.1 4.1 7.5
2008 24 COL 3.99 198.2 182 97 88 172 118 0.5 4.7 7.8
2009 25 COL 3.47 218.0 183 87 84 198 136 0.5 3.5 8.2
2010 26 COL 2.88 221.2 164 73 71 214 161 0.4 3.7 8.7
2011 27 TOT 4.68 188.1 186 111 98 180 93 0.8 3.7 8.6
2011 27 COL 4.46 123.0 118 68 61 118 102 0.7 3.7 8.6
2011 27 CLE 5.10 65.1 68 43 37 62 77 1.0 3.7 8.5
2012 28 CLE 5.40 176.2 190 116 106 143 72 1.3 4.8 7.3
2013 29 CLE 3.30 182.2 163 75 67 194 114 0.8 3.9 9.6
8 Yrs 3.92 1275.2 1143 609 556 1172 112 0.7 4.0 8.3
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/26/2014.

Jimenez is not someone who will consistently throw mid-90s fastballs anymore -- last year his average fastball velocity was 92.1 mph, the lowest it has ever been -- but he's gotten back to throwing more sinkers, and for the first time since 2009 he threw more sliders than four-seam fastballs. He also keeps cutting down on his curveball usage. Despite his decreased velocity, though, Jimenez still gets pretty good movement on his pitches, which makes the decreased velocity easier to stomach.

Tony Blengino of FanGraphs recently rated Jimenez as the best of the Jimenez-Garza-Santana troika, adding:
[O]ne has to conclude that Ubaldo Jimenez is . . . the one most worthy of a significant investment. His profile is somewhat unusual for a 30-year-old — especially the elevated walk rate — and there is a history of inconsistency, but there is No. 2 starter upside here, coupled with an ongoing clean bill of health.
Ubaldo Jimenez (via Keith Allison)
Jimenez's career 4.04 BB/9 is certainly concerning; in 2012, his walk rate jumped to a career high 4.84. But he rebounded in 2013 by striking out two more batters per nine (9.56) and walking about one fewer per nine (3.94), finishing with his best ERA (3.30) since 2010. One way he did that was by attacking the strikezone early in the count more (58.4 first-pitch strike percentage, the highest since his rookie season).

2013 was the first season in which Jimenez struck out more than nine batters per nine innings, so it would be foolish to expect him to do that from now on. But as long as he keeps his walks under four batters per nine innings, keeps the home runs allowed down, and produces a decent groundball percentage, his ERA should remain around 4 while he continues to chew up innings.

Garza recently signed a four-year, $50 million deal, so Jimenez may get something close to that. Unlike Garza, though, signing Jimenez (like Santana) would cost the Orioles their first-round pick. Considering that the Orioles have never handed a free agent pitcher a deal for more than three years, signing Jimenez is unlikely. But until he's officially signed, there's always some sort of chance it could happen. But I wouldn't count on it, and I wouldn't be surprised if the O's front office favors Arroyo (shorter deal, less money) over Jimenez and Santana.

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