Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Ubaldo Jimenez may have pitched himself out of the Orioles’ starting rotation.
It’s been a common refrain ever since Jimenez joined the Orioles in 2014 on a four-year, $50 million free-agent contract. With every string of bad outings, every frustrating bout of wildness and ineffectiveness, fans have called for Jimenez’s removal.
Manager Buck Showalter and the Orioles’ brass tend to preach patience, especially with their veterans. They trust their players’ track records and give them ample opportunity to find their footing. And often, their faith is rewarded.
Jimenez, however, may not be giving the Orioles much of a choice but to make a change.
His latest disastrous outing came Monday when, staked to a five-run lead against the Twins, Jimenez coughed it up without recording an out in the fifth inning. He gave back a run apiece in the third and fourth, then surrendered four consecutive hits to start the fifth. Jimenez’s collapse happened so quickly that Showalter barely had time to get reliever Tyler Wilson warmed up.
By the time Showalter gave Jimenez the hook, the Twins had shaved the Orioles’ lead to 6-4 and had two runners in scoring position with nobody out. Both inherited runs scored off Wilson, leaving Jimenez with six earned runs charged to his line.
“They just came out swinging,” Jimenez said. “It was one of those nights that everything you threw, they just found a way to (have) a good at-bat.”
Jimenez’s season ERA now sits at an unsightly 7.17 in nine games (eight starts). He’s walked 25 batters and allowed 48 hits in 42 2/3 innings. He has just one quality start this year, and only two outings longer than five innings.
“Obviously, the results aren’t very good, and a lot of it is some balls in the center of the plate,” Showalter said. “Not many counts in his favor. Hasn’t really had consistent out pitches.”
Not only has Jimenez been putting the Orioles in an early hole nearly every time out — or, in Monday’s case, squandering a big advantage — but his frequent early exits have put tremendous strain on the club’s often shorthanded bullpen.
His poor outings may be having an emotional effect, conscious or not, on the rest of the club as well. After Jimenez let the Orioles’ lead slip away Monday, the bullpen was raked for six runs in the sixth, an inning that featured a Jonathan Schoop error and a Stefan Crichton balk in which he dropped the ball during his delivery. And the Orioles’ offense, which had erupted for six runs in the first four innings, went quiet, held to one run for the rest of the game.
Granted, it’s unfair to pin the entire team’s troubles on Jimenez. But his pitching performance hasn’t improved, and he’s quickly using up the long leash the Orioles have given him.
So where do the Orioles go from here?
The club likely won’t make any immediate decisions regarding Jimenez’s future. As expected, Showalter’s post-game press conference gave no indication of whether the Orioles were considering a change.
“Certainly I understand that the production hasn’t been there like it needs to be,” Showalter said. “And if there’s adjustments to be made, we’ll make them. But I’m certainly not going to talk about things like that in this setting. But I understand that’s a question we ask every time we have some consistent struggles at a certain part of our game.”
With a day off Thursday, the Orioles can skip Jimenez’s next turn through the rotation and won’t need a fifth starter until May 30.
If the Orioles opt not to continue pressing their luck with Jimenez, the top candidate to replace him may be Alec Asher. Asher made two starts for the club earlier this season — both quality starts — and has been pitching well in long relief.
Beyond Asher, there aren’t a lot of obvious candidates. Jayson Aquino beat the Red Sox in his one start for the Orioles this year, but he’s been struggling at Triple-A Norfolk with a 5.13 ERA. Gabriel Ynoa, who just came off the DL and was optioned to Norfolk, has a 6.65 ERA in five starts for the Tides.
In fact, no regular Norfolk starter has an ERA below 4.00. The best mark belongs to Mike Wright (4.13 ERA in nine starts), but his repeated struggles as a starter in the big leagues may make the Orioles hesitant to consider him.
There’s also another sensitive subject to consider: If you bounce Jimenez from the rotation, what do you do with him?
Would the Orioles move him to the bullpen? He pitched well in a three-inning emergency relief stint in Boston on May 3, but he hasn’t fared well as a reliever throughout his career, compiling a 6.41 ERA in 10 outings.
“There’s always that possibility,” Showalter said. “Is it good for the bullpen? That’s another question.”
The other option, of course, is to simply cut ties with Jimenez by releasing him or designating him for assignment. In past years, the Orioles never seriously considered doing so. With his expensive contract, the club didn’t want to give up on him when there was a possibility he could rebound sometime down the road.
Now, it’s a different story. Jimenez is in the final year of his contract. There are no future seasons to consider. If the Orioles are convinced he can’t turn things around, it’s possible they’d eat the $10 million or so remaining on his deal.
It’s a tough situation. Jimenez is a consummate professional and one of the most well-liked, well-respected players in the Orioles’ clubhouse. Fans calling for his immediate release need to understand the human element and the emotions involved. It’s not a decision the Orioles will make lightly.
But Jimenez is the first to admit that he hasn’t done his job on the field. And now he may be forcing the Orioles’ hand.
“Of course I don’t feel good because of the way I’ve been pitching. I know it’s not enough,” Jimenez said. “The only thing I can do is prepare for my next game, whatever it is. I can’t control that.”