Ubaldo Jimenez, the Indians and the Trade That Didn’t Pay Off Until the Last Minute
This week was supposed to be an exciting time for baseball fans. The MLB was set to return, with it coming many things we need right now.
A sense of normalcy. A welcome distraction. An opportunity to razz the Astros again. They’re all reasons we’re anxious to get baseball back in our lives.
Ubaldo Jimenez is especially eager for the season to finally kick off.
The Dominican hurler has been out of the game since 2017, but returned to Colorado hoping to revive his career with his original team. He logged only two spring training starts for the Rockies before his comeback attempt, like the rest of the league, was paused.
Cleveland Indians fans remember Jimenez all too well, and not for the best reasons. He was once meant to represent the club’s go-for-broke push for a playoff berth. Instead, Cleveland’s trade for him was mostly viewed as a massive dud.
Which it was. For all intents and purposes, Jimenez flopped during his time with the Indians. Then, at the very last minute, the trade finally paid off. And did so right when it mattered most.
The 2011 Tribe wasn't supposed to contend. After a surprising 18-8 record in April, Cleveland fell back to earth, winning just 24 games across the next two months.
The rotation was carried by Justin Masterson’s breakout campaign. Joining him was Josh Tomlin, a shaky Carlos Carrasco and Roberto Hernandez (the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona).
Asdrubal Cabrera buoyed the offense with the best season of his career (3.7 fWAR). The next highest fWAR on the roster? Jack Hannahan (2.4).
By July 30, the Indians were 53-51. However, Detroit wasn’t running away with the Central. Cleveland was barely above .500, but also just 1.5 games out of first.
With the trade deadline approaching, the Indians were rumored to be buyers.
As far as assets went, Cleveland had two pieces other clubs were coveting -- Alex White and Drew Pomeranz.
Both starters were recent first round picks. At the time, White had already made his big league debut, logging a 3.60 ERA across three starts earlier in the year. Pomeranz was midway through his first season in the minors, but had already jumped from High-A to Double-A.
The thinking was, if the Tribe was going to make a big move, said trade would have to involve White or Pomeranz. Definitely not both. At least not in the same deal.
The Indians’ front office felt differently. To get Jimenez to Cleveland, they ponied up both White and Pomeranz, along with Joe Gardner and Matt McBride.
To be fair, the Indians needed help in the rotation. Jimenez was fresh off his breakout season, having gone 19-8 in 2010 with a 2.88 ERA and an fWAR of 6.0. With two years remaining on his contract before an opt-out, the move made sense on paper.
That said, there were warning signs of what was to come.
Jimenez left Denver with a 4.46 ERA. He had already allowed the same amount of homers and just ten fewer earned runs than the previous season, and in 98.2 fewer innings pitched.
His attempt to alleviate any concerns, while also pushing Cleveland to the playoffs, fell flat from the get-go. Jimenez gave up five earned in five innings pitched during his Indians debut. While he was still good for a quality start every now and then, consistency was never his thing.
Jimenez finished his first stint in Cleveland going 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA. At season’s end, the Indians were 15 games out of first.
2012 wasn’t much better. Jimenez’s ERA and FIP jumped into the 5’s and, after impressively keeping his HR/9 below 1.00 while pitching in high altitude, said metric spiked to 1.27.
The trade just kept backfiring. Jimenez wrapped up the first half of the 2013 season with a 4.56 ERA and a walk rate of 12.2%, while fans (and probably the Indians themselves) were counting down the innings until they could cut their ties.
Then, out of nowhere, Jimenez became elite. Actually, looking at his second half stats, even "elite" might be putting it lightly.
First half - 4.56 ERA, 4.50 FIP, 12.2% walk rate, 1.19 HR/9
Second half - 1.82 ERA, 2.17 FIP, 7.8% walk rate, 0.32 HR/9
Suddenly, Jimenez transitioned from fan-base punching bag to the ace of the staff. Only one pitcher (Clayton Kershaw) had a better ERA in the back half of the year.
Meanwhile, the Indians surged down the stretch, going 21-6 in September and clinching their first playoff berth since 2007 on the last day of the season. Jimenez was on the mound, notching 13 K’s.
Cleveland finally broke its skid of unsuccessful seasons, and Jimenez finding a gear not yet seen during his time with the team was a huge reason why. Quite the Shyamalan twist.
Would the Indians have preferred this trade to pay off far earlier? Of course. However, Jimenez’s “better late than never” approach couldn’t have been better timed for the Tribe.
It was perfectly timed for him, too.
Jimenez voided his club option and declined the Tribe’s qualifying offer that offseason, hoping to cash in on his second half success. He did exactly that, signing a four-year, $50-million deal with Baltimore.
In the end, evaluating this trade from Cleveland’s perspective is tricky.
Jimenez did end up pushing the Indians to the playoffs. It was just two years later than planned.
Letting him walk after 2013 wasn’t a bad look for Cleveland, either. Jimenez logged just one decent season in Baltimore. He bounced from the majors after finishing 2017 with a 6.81 ERA.
Likewise, no buyer’s remorse was felt when looking back at what the Indians gave up. White never panned out, logging just four wins with the Rockies before being let go. Pomeranz has seen some success, but only well after his time in Colorado came to a close.
So, was the Jimenez trade really a flop?
The Indians ultimately gave up two of their top prospects, receiving just a couple months of stellar pitching in return. Said stellar pitching helped carry them to a postseason berth. Said prospects never met their expectations.
With this perspective, the trade doesn’t look like a full bust for Cleveland. The move also got Jimenez paid, so he surely views it as a win.
Now, he’s just waiting for baseball to resume, hoping to prove he still has something left in the tank. In order to make his comeback bid a success, he’ll need to channel whatever it was that had him pitching like a star in 2013, when Cleveland’s trade for him finally (albeit briefly) paid off.