When the Baltimore Orioles gave Ubaldo Jimenez a four-year, $48 million deal this offseason, the hope was that Jimenez could be the consistent veteran the team needed to help prop up a young rotation, and maybe even be a top starter to provide a solid 1-2 punch with Chris Tillman. Through three starts in 2014, however, Jimenez has been anything but ace-caliber. His latest outing—five earned runs on 10 hits in just 5 1/3 innings—lifted Jimenez's ERA to an unsightly 7.31 as Baltimore was walloped by Toronto, 11-3.
Against the Blue Jays, Jimenez was in trouble from the very start, as the second batter of the game, Colby Rasmus, launched a solo homer onto Eutaw Street in Camden Yards. Two more runs came across in the fourth on a groundout and a suicide squeeze, before Brett Lawrie's long homer in the sixth off of a hanging offspeed pitch added to Jimenez's troubles. A single by Ryan Goins finished Jimenez's day; Goins later came around to score on a single by Rasmus off reliever Josh Stinson.
The biggest problems for Jimenez to start 2014 have been walks and homers. In his first 16 innings, Jimenez has issued 10 free passes, or 5.6 per nine. Though Jimenez has never been a control artist—last year, he averaged nearly four walks per nine innings, and his career average is just over four per game—his propensity to give up the longball has made the walks that much more painful. With the two homers surrendered Sunday, Jimenez has now allowed four in three starts, or just over two per nine innings. That's three times his career mark.
Jimenez's four-seam fastball has been the biggest source of his frustration. After allowing no homers on 655 four-seamers thrown in 2013, Jimenez has already given up three on 105 fastballs in 2014. Going into Sunday's start, opponents were hitting an even .300 against Jimenez's four-seamer with a .600 slugging percentage. What's worse, Jimenez isn't getting any swings and misses with the pitch. Of the 38 he threw against Toronto, he got just two whiffs overall; of the 98 pitches he threw in Sunday's start, only five got swings and misses. Overall, hitters are swinging less at Jimenez's offerings, but still making the same rate of contact. In other words, hitters are laying off Jimenez's outside offerings and waiting for the fastball in the strike zone, and then pounding it when it arrives.
Part of the concern in signing Jimenez was whether or not the weaker competition of the AL Central had artificially inflated his numbers. Against the White Sox, Twins and Royals, Jimenez gave up 18 earned runs in 61 innings, or a 2.66 ERA. Against the far-better-hitting Tigers, however, Jimenez was tagged for 10 earned runs in 13 innings. And the AL East has never been Jimenez's favorite place to pitch. Against the Red Sox, Jimenez has a career 10.27 ERA; against the Yankees, it's 6.67. Those two teams both ripped Jimenez in his first two starts of the season, and will get plenty more at-bats against him as the season progresses.
Though Tillman has had a fantastic start to the season with just two earned runs allowed in 21 1/3 innings, and Bud Norris has been solid in his first two starts, the rest of the Orioles' rotation has been lackluster so far. Aside from Jimenez, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez have also been hit hard, with Gonzalez in particular getting ripped for 10 earned runs and four homers in just 9 1/3 innings. Homers have been a big problem for the back-end of the Orioles' rotation; in 30 2/3 innings, Chen, Gonzalez and Jimenez have given up nine round-trippers. While it's still early, the Orioles need far more from their starters, especially Jimenez, to stay afloat in the AL East. At 5-7, Baltimore sits in the AL East basement, 1/2 game behind Boston. And they need those starters to turn it around fast, with the next 10 games coming against division foes Tampa, Boston and Toronto. If Jimenez and company can't fix what's ailing them, the Orioles could find themselves buried in the division race before the month of April is even over.