There are some basic things we need to get out of the way first.
Orioles right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez has been the Bad Ubaldo this year. Only three of his 13 outings this season have been quality starts (three runs or fewer, six innings or more). His ERA, 6.89, is terrible and his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is an embarrassing 1.98 – or basically an average of two baserunners an inning.
He absolutely, positively shouldn’t be in a big league rotation right now – especially after getting just one out in his most recent start on Sunday.
So understand I’m in complete agreement with Orioles manager Buck Showalter’s decision to move him to the bullpen Tuesday for the foreseeable future.
Frankly, based on his background and his current work, he doesn’t deserve a bullpen spot either. With such shaky control – he’s walked 35 batters in 62 2/3 innings this year – he doesn’t profile well as a reliever. And he’s come out of a bullpen only four times in an 11-season career, including three games for the Orioles in his rough 2014.
But what you have to understand – and it seems like few fans want to understand it – is that the Orioles have to put him in the bullpen for now. There really is little choice.
Because, this year, they really could use the Good Ubaldo. And the only way to have a Good Ubaldo is to have an Ubaldo somewhere.
That’s the rub here, people. This Orioles’ rotation isn’t very good and it certainly isn’t very experienced. That’s why they signed Jimenez in the first place.
He hasn’t been consistent in years. When he can figure out his complicated mechanics, he has tremendous deception. When he repeats his complicated delivery, he throws strikes and mows down lineups. When he tries to simplify his delivery or he fails to repeat it, he loses deception, command or both.
So he is always a work in progress. And that’s so difficult to count on, which makes the four-year, $50 million deal he signed before the 2014 season one of the worst in club history.
But he got that contract because in the second half of 2013 he was arguably the best pitcher in the American League, posting a 1.82 ERA in 13 starts. And he was abysmal much of the first part of that year – compiling a 6.05 ERA in the first nine starts of 2013
Last year, he was as solid as they come, going 12-10 with a 4.11 ERA in 32 games. That’s pretty much his career – in 11 seasons he has a 4.12 ERA. This year, the MLB ERA average is 4.11.
Obviously, he’s been far from average this season. But his career numbers and his career trajectory – up, down, up and down — say that he’ll eventually be usable in 2016. He’s had just one season ERA above 4.82 in his career, despite pitching a ton at Coors Field in Colorado. Even in his disastrous first year with the Orioles, his season ERA was 4.81 (better than Chris Tillman’s 2015 season).
Many fans suggest this move to the bullpen is all about money.
And there is something to be said about that, for sure.
The Orioles, despite starting this season with the 10th highest payroll in baseball, aren’t a club that will easily or happily eat $21.3 million or so through the 2017 season. That’s a ton of cash for most teams.
And, remember, Jimenez is the only free agent pitcher the Orioles have ever given a four-year deal to; in the past, owner Peter Angelos refused to approve more than three years, because history shows starting pitchers rarely make good on contracts that go four years or longer.
There was some convincing that needed to be done at the time to finalize that deal. And if this one ends up dying on the vine in its third year, you might as well forget any chance of a four-year, free-agent pitching deal ever occurring again in the Orioles’ future.
But, beyond all of those attempts at reasoning, know this: The Orioles’ rotation simply isn’t good enough to cut bait with Jimenez at this time. Tillman has been very good and Kevin Gausman still has a huge ceiling. But Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright are the best the Orioles’ farm system had to offer, and they’ve both taken their lumps. Yovani Gallardo, the club’s attempt at a pitching Band-Aid this winter, is returning Saturday from the DL and will pitch in Jimenez’s spot. In his four starts as an Oriole, Gallardo’s ERA was 7.00 – yes worse than Jimenez’s.
The Orioles will try to trade for starting pitching this summer, but they don’t likely have what it takes in a prospect package to land a rotation difference-maker – assuming one is even available.
So, as much as it pains you to read, Jimenez might be a solid option down the stretch if he can figure things out. And so the only true option is to put him in the bullpen for now and hope something clicks (as bad as he was for most of 2014, for instance, he did post a 3.27 ERA in three September games, two starts, and picked up the win on the night the Orioles clinched the division).
A further complication is that Jimenez can’t be sent down to the minors without his permission. And why would he give his permission? He could refuse, the Orioles would be stuck with what’s remaining on his contract – and then he could go somewhere else to get a fresh start without losing a dime.
And I guarantee another club would snatch him up for the prorated league minimum as soon as he passes through waivers. Again, criticize the 32-year-old all you want, but he has a career 4.12 ERA, a 4.11 ERA as recently as last year and a 3.30 ERA as recently as 2013.
I guess my bottom line is this: There’d be only one thing worse than watching Bad Ubaldo continually pitch for the Orioles; and that’s watching Good Ubaldo pitch on the Orioles’ dime for another team.
So, for now, they have to bury Bad Ubaldo on the roster and hope that Good Ubaldo suddenly appears. It may be a long shot, but the only solace, I guess, is that it has happened before.