For a team that snapped a streak of 14 losing seasons with a playoff berth two years ago only to shed eight wins last year, the Orioles had a surprisingly quiet offseason. Prior to Monday, their most significant move this winter was to trade their arbitration-eligible closer in a salary dump, and their most significant addition may have been 28-year-old sophomore outfielder David Lough. That all changed Monday, when the Orioles came to terms with right-handed starter Ubaldo Jimenez on a four-year contract worth a reported $50 million.
Jimenez was one of five high-profile free agents this winter whose market was adversely effected by his having rejected a qualifying offer from his 2013 team, thus attaching draft-pick compensation to his price tag for his 2014 team. He is now the first of those five—the others being first baseman Kendrys Morales, shortstop Stephen Drew, outfielder Nelson Cruz, and fellow starting pitcher Ervin Santana—to land a contract for 2014, doing so several days after pitchers and catchers were due to report to camp.
Jimenez was, along with Santana and Matt Garza (who was not extended a qualifying offer and signed with the Brewers for the same guaranteed dollars and years three weeks ago), one of this winter's top free-agent pitchers, but he is far from the ace he appeared to be blossoming into in early 2010. Jimenez went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA and 214 strikeouts for the Rockies that year, finishing third in the National League Cy Young voting. But after opening that season by going 13-1 with a 1.15 ERA and an April 17 no-hitter, he went 6-7 with a 4.34 ERA the rest of the way. Over the next two seasons, his velocity dropped, he was traded to Cleveland despite a team-friendly contract, and he went a combined 19-30 with a 5.03 ERA and 1.50 WHIP.
Jimenez reversed that downward trend last year in his age-29 season, not by recovering his old form, but by finding a new one that worked. In 2010, Jimenez's primary fastball was an upper-90s four-seamer that averaged 95.8 miles per hour (per BrooksBaseball.net) and his secondary pitches were a slider, changeup and curve, in that order of frequency. In 2013, working with mechanics completely rebuilt that spring by Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway, Jimenez's primary fastball was a sinker that averaged 91.5 miles per hour, he threw his slider more often than ever before, and his next most frequently deployed offspeed pitch was a splitter, which he first started throwing in games in 2011. Jimenez also introduced a cutter for the first time in 2013, though he rarely used it.
That new version of Jimenez posted the best strikeout rate of his career (9.6 K/9) along with his best strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.43) and, after an adjustment period in April, posted a 2.61 ERA over his final 28 starts of the season, finishing with a flourish, striking out ten or more batters in four of his final eight starts, including a 13-strikeout performance to clinch the wild card for Cleveland on the final day of the regular season, and posting a 1.09 ERA in six starts (all quality) in September despite a .340 opponents batting average on balls in play that month.
That was all very encouraging, but Jimenez's Orioles career will begin with as many questions as answers. Was that performance evidence of Jimenez's growing comfort with his new mechanics and repertoire, or just a walk-year surge? Can Jimenez continue to succeed with his new delivery despite being divorced from the pitching coach who designed it? Will the erosion of Jimenez's groundball rate, which, despite the increased emphasis on his sinker, has been a side-effect of those changes, cause problems in Baltimore's home-run friendly ballpark? Jimenez's success last year came after he had largely dashed all of the expectations that followed him into the majors with the Rockies. Can he repeat that success given the new set of expectations created by his contract?
There's a great deal of pressure on both Jimenez and Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace to make sure Baltimore gets what is has paid for in dollars and draft picks (having forfeited the 17th overall pick, the Orioles' top pick in June will now be their second-rounder, 55th overall). Jimenez's contract positions him as the ace of a rotation that will also include 2013 All-Star Chris Tillman, Taiwanese lefty Wei-Yin Chen and, most likely, righty Miguel Gonzalez and deadline-addition Bud Norris, but given the fluctuations in his performance over the last four seasons, Jimenez seems as likely to be the worst pitcher in that rotation as the best.
Still, considering their inaction elsewhere and the available options, it's hard to criticize the Orioles for this signing. Jimenez's new contract, which is dependent on him passing a physical on Tuesday, is roughly equivalent to those signed this winter by Garza and Ricky Nolasco. Neither of those pitchers had draft-pick compensation attached to his price, but Jimenez has a far higher upside than the pedestrian Nolasco, and Garza's contract includes a vesting option for a fifth year which could boost the value of his deal to $63 million over five years.
The Jimenez signing comes hot on the heels of the Orioles announcing a three-year, $5.575 million contract with South Korean right-hander Suk-Min Yoon, a deal also dependent upon a physical. As a result, the Orioles suddenly find themselves with depth in their rotation. Prior to the Jimenez signing, top prospect Kevin Gausman looked like the team's most likely fifth starter, but the Orioles can now start him back in Triple-A, or, if Gausman is particularly impressive in camp, could consider moving one of the five starters mentioned above to the bullpen. Norris is one member of the team's projected rotation who has often been rumored to be heading to the bullpen, and with the team having failed to replace Jim Johnson at closer (Tommy Hunter enters camp as the favorite for the role, though Darren O'Day would be a wiser choice), the idea of trying Norris in that role could be attractive to the Orioles once Gausman proves ready. As it stands, Gausman, Yoon, and lefty Zach Britton enter camp as extra starters hoping to break their way into the rotation, while the team's long-term projections offer up hope of a rotation headed by Jimenez, Tillman, Gausman, and top prospect Dylan Bundy, who is currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. For now, the Orioles will look to Jimenez to help them regain some of the ground they lost in the American League East last year. He may not be up to the challenge, but given their disappointing offseason and tenuous status as contenders, the Orioles are better off having tried and failed than never having tried at all.