On Friday, the Orioles placed Ubaldo Jimenez on the disabled list due to an ankle sprain, a move that conveniently mothballed the team's highest-paid but least effective starter while opening up a spot for rookie Kevin Gausman. It also allowed general manager Dan Duquette to continue a roster juggling act designed to give manager Buck Showalter and the AL-East leading O’s (51-41 coming into Saturday) a tactical advantage.
Signed to a four-year, $50 million deal in February, Jimenez is one of three Orioles starters who has yet to miss a turn this season. Even so, the 30-year-old righty has been every bit as erratic as the team might have feared given his previous three seasons. Out of whack mechanically, his 60 walks lead the American League, and his rate of 5.4 per nine is a career high and 1.3 per nine above his already uncomfortably high career rate -- the seventh-highest of the past 20 years (1,200 inning minimum).
His 1.47 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a career worst, and 0.04 lower than in 2012 when he lost 17 games and was rocked for a 5.40 ERA. This year, his ERA is 4.52. His 28 percent quality start rate is the lowest among any Oriole with at least six starts, and the lowest rate of any AL pitcher qualified for the ERA title (one inning per team game).
According to the team, Jimenez stepped in a hole in the parking lot outside his Baltimore apartment and sprained his right ankle -- the same one he sprained in late 2012. Given the swelling and his scheduled turn in the rotation on Sunday, the choice to put him on the disabled list was apparently a no-brainer.
Effectively, it's also one that allows the team to continue using a six-man rotation, something that's been going on for the past five weeks, aided by Duquette's use of minor league options (a requirement to move a player who’s on the 40-man roster between the minors and majors) as well as the DL, where Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris have both served stints.
At the center of this strategy is Gausman, a 23-year-old rookie who has emerged as the team's most effective starter since being recalled on June 7, and who is scheduled to start against the Yankees in Jimenez' place. Here's a quick snapshot of the rotation in that span:
The strategy has paid dividends. Coming into Saturday, the Orioles had gone 21-12 for the league's second-best record during that timeframe, climbing from third in the AL East, 6 1/2 games back of the Blue Jays to first, three games up on Toronto, which at the same time has gone into an 11-21 tailspin.
For as well as Gausman has pitched -- allowing no more than one run in four of those five starts -- he hasn't been allowed to stay in one place for very long. Because he threw only 129 2/3 innings last year between the minors and majors (47 2/3 for the Orioles), the team is attempting to keep his workload in check so that they don't have to resort to a Stephen Strasburg-type shutdown later in the year while contending for a postseason berth.
Thus, he's been optioned to the minors three times in that span. He took a one-inning start for Triple-A Norfolk on June 23 and a two-inning one for Low-A Aberdeen on July 2, and was set for another (presumably short) outing on Sunday before Jimenez went down. He's thrown 45 1/3 innings in the minors and 33 1/3 in the majors (he made a spot start back in May) for a total of 88 2/3 innings.
Gausman isn't the only Orioles' pitcher being yo-yoed between the minors and majors. On Thursday, a day after he was roughed up for five runs in four innings in his first start back from the DL, Norris -- a six-year major league veteran -- was optioned to Double-A Bowie while the team recalled righty reliever Preston Guilmet. On Friday they made the Jimenez move and officially recalled Gausman. On Saturday, they sent down Gonzalez, a three-year veteran who had thrown eight innings of two-run ball against the Yankees on Friday night, and recalled catcher Steve Clevinger to fill the roster spot.
The option moves have nothing to do with performance and everything to do with lengthening Showalter's bullpen and bench for the team's final four games of the first half against the Nationals and Yankees; Norris (3.96 ERA) and Gonzalez (4.04) have the lowest ERAs of any of the team's starters besides Gausman (3.56). The two pitchers will be eligible to return on July 20 and 22, respectively, slotting back into the rotation without missing a turn thanks to the forthcoming All-Star break. Jimenez will be eligible to return on July 26.
This isn't the first time Duquette has tried this tactic. In fact, it's been part of the team's reemergence as contenders over the last three seasons, with Showalter able to call upon the hot hand while breaking in some of the team's homegrown prospects, albeit unevenly. In 2012, when the Orioles won 93 games and a Wild Card berth, Chen was the only one of the team's pitchers to make more than 20 starts; seven pitchers made between 11 and 20 starts, six of whom were optioned at some point during the season.
Tillman (33 starts) and Gonzalez (28 starts) were the only Orioles with more than 23 starts last year when the Orioles won 85 games; eight had between five and 23, five of whom were optioned at some point. Though it’s fair to wonder about the severity of some of the minor injuries that have befallen Baltimore starters during that time, the option-based juggling is well within MLB’s rules, and Duquette and the Orioles have been smart to take advantage of them.