History says Rockies would be wise to move Ubaldo Jimenez now

Publish date:

Why would the Rockies even think about trading Ubaldo Jimenez? Aces are so valuable -- especially young ones under team control for years -- that I keep a rule of thumb: The minute you trade one, you begin a lengthy search to come up with another one. But this is different. This is Denver.

Jimenez has terrific stuff, a powerful frame and the work ethic of a blast furnace. He is 27 and under the Rockies' control through 2014. But for years he's been pitching half of his games at altitude, which grinds down pitchers.

The workhorse starter in Colorado Rockies history does not exist. No one ever has thrown 200 innings three straight seasons for the Rockies, though Jimenez is attempting to be the first.

In the first half of last season, Jimenez's career odometer went past 600 innings, as he moved into sixth place on the franchise's all-time innings list. He looked every bit the franchise ace. Since then, he has been just another middle-of-the-rotation pitcher: 10-16 with a 4.03 ERA. Is that a slump or a warning sign?

Jimenez is now fourth among pitchers who have thrown the most innings for the Rockies, and soon will pass Jeff Francis for third, behind only Aaron Cook and Jason Jennings.

There have been 10 pitchers who have thrown 500 innings for the Rockies. What kind of toll did the previous nine pay for pitching in Colorado? Almost all of them broke down, none of them had sustained success through his 30s and even getting out of Denver proved not to be restorative for them. Only one of the nine pitchers ever threw 200 innings after leaving the Rockies: John Thomson did it once, for the 2003 Rangers.

There is plenty to like about Jimenez, but given such a history, and with top starting pitchers in short supply, the Rockies should absolutely see if they can prey upon the needs of the Yankees, Reds and Tigers to see what he might bring them in a deal. And they should keep this list away from interested teams: the nine previous pitchers to throw 500 innings for the Rockies, the toll they paid and the age when adversity struck:

Uh, about that second wild card idea? Can we rush it into play this year to save September? "The wild card races are over," one GM said this week, though he did say that before Atlanta catcher Brian McCann was hit by the dreaded oblique epidemic.

As of Friday morning, only two teams -- excluding division leaders -- are within five games of a wild card spot in the either league: the Arizona Diamondbacks, who trail Atlanta by 3 1/2 games in the NL, and the Los Angeles Angels, who are five back of the Yankees. All we are left with are slow-speed chases in the Central divisions.

What does it mean? Baseball is very top heavy. If this seems like an unusually boring year for wild-card races, it is -- historically boring, in fact. Using the five-game deficit as a barometer, there never have been so few teams in contention for a wil card spot at this point in the 17-year history of the format. Check it out: the year-by-year number of teams in wild-card contention through July 28:

1995: 8 1996: 7 1997: 3 1998: 4 1999: 4 2000: 7 2001: 5 2002: 5 2003: 8 2004: 8 2005: 12 2006: 5 2007: 7 2008: 4 2009: 8 2010: 4 2011: 2

In 2002, as a coach with the Texas Rangers, Terry Francona, now the manager of the Boston Red Sox, went to a hospital to visit Rangers pitcher Hideki Irabu, who had experienced an elevated heart rate.

"Found him there in the hospital bed," Francona said, "smoking cigarettes."

Francona gave a wry smile at the memory, one now bittersweet upon learning that Irabu took his own life. Irabu came to this country with an exciting combination of mystery and fanfare, made possible by his reputation as the "Nolan Ryan of Japan" and the manner in which he orchestrated his way to New York. I was there that night in 1997 in the Bronx when he made his debut, and it was opening night on Broadway. It was a happening, and the nine strikeouts that night made you believe that he could be the rare big-budget show that lived up to the hype.

"There were moments in spring training," said Joe Torre, his manager with the Yankees, "where he would catch everybody's eyes with his stuff. The ability was there. It was just not very consistent."

Alas, Irabu didn't have the will and fitness to maintain his stuff in what we now know is a difficult transition from Japan Pro Baseball to the majors, if only for the training and workload regimen. "He just didn't seem as motivated as the other players we had," Torre said.

Irabu won 24 games for back-to-back world championship teams in 1998 and 1999, though he was a non-factor in the postseasons and came to be known as a major disappointment, even an indifferent one. Of all the pitchers who made at least 50 starts for the Yankees, Irabu's ERA of 4.80 is the fourth-worst in franchise history (ahead of only Sterling Hitchcock, Tim Leary and Hank Johnson).

There was no going back -- in perpetuity as it turned out -- once George Steinbrenner called him "a fat pussy toad" in 1999. The insult remains an example of the lasting harm that words can bring to a reputation.

Back then there did not seem to be a darkness to Irabu. If anything, he rolled with failure and frustration easily, like small swells of the sea. As recently as 2010 he talked about making a pitching comeback in Japan in an independent league. Somewhere, though, as problems mounted with alcohol and, by accounts out of his death in California, his marriage, the easygoing, hard-smoking man with the golden arm lost his way. It is a terribly sad story for this father and husband, and the sadness has nothing to do with his major league career. Irabu was just 42 years old.