Some Thoughts on Ubaldo Jimenez

As of Wednesday February 19, Ubaldo Jimenez officially became a member of the Baltimore Orioles.  The Orioles signed him to a 4-year, $50 million contract.  While he’s expected to perform near the top of the rotation for the duration of the contract, he’s already completed his toughest task, which was passing Baltimore’s physical exam*.  The details of the contract aren’t that important (they can be found here), but at an average annual value of $12.5 million, at first glance this looks like a decent deal for the Orioles, especially if you’re last memory of Jimenez is the unhittable version of him from the 2013 All-Star break to the end of the season.

*I know the whole “passing a Baltimore Orioles physical” has been overdone this offseason, but I felt that it was my duty to make sure I had at least one joke in here about it.  Although any joke probably wouldn’t top this tweet from former Orioles’ pitcher Jeremy Guthrie.

If you’ve been reading the different opinions about the Jimenez signing, you see a lot of the emphasis on how the signing affects the team’s playoff chances in 2014.  This is important to talk about for a couple of reasons.  One is that since Jimenez will be 30 years old during the 2014 season, there is a decent chance that the first year of his contract will be his best. Second, with all the recent talk of Baltimore’s current window of contention potentially closing in the next year or two (Hardy and Markakis are free agents after 2014, while Wieters and Davis will be free agents after 2015), it appears that productive seasons from Jimenez will be more valuable to the team’s success in his first 2 years than his last 2 years.  There may be a bit of truth to both of these points, but I don’t necessarily want to focus only on 2014 in this post.

Having said that, let’s focus on 2014 for a moment.  I (and some of the other writers at Camden Depot) have recently talked about how adding certain free agent pitchers (*cough* Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez *cough*) wouldn’t make the team all that much better in 2014, with each adding a win, maybe 2, according to most projection systems.  It’s not that Jimenez isn’t valuable, it’s just that he’s not that much more valuable than what the Orioles already have.  So if the Orioles were currently a 77-win team (according to the Zips projection system at Fangraphs), adding Jimenez theoretically moves them to 79, and really no closer to the playoffs.  At a cost of $50 million, it doesn’t seem to be the best way to spend ownerships money.

However, Jimenez is one of the highest variable pitchers in the league.  Out of all of the starting pitchers available in this year’s free agent class, he may have the best chance to go absolutely bonkers and put up a 6 WAR season.  Of course, he also probably has the best chance to tank and perform at replacement level.  According to Fangraphs, he was the 3rd worst pitcher in baseball as recently as 2012 (notice that Ervin Santana was the worst).  Break down Jimenez’s performance further into convenient arbitrary end points, and you can see just how good (and bad) he’s been over his career.

Jimenez Stats

Of course, a lot of his inconsistencies have to do with his pitching mechanics.  Doug Thorburn writes an excellent column for Baseball Prospectus called “Raising Aces”, where he looks at the mechanics of major league pitchers and pitching prospects.  He’s looked at Jimenez several times and this article does a nice job of comparing Jimenez’s mechanics in 2010 (when he was fantastic) and 2012 (when he was not).  Below are two videos of Jimenez, the first one from 2012, and the second from the second half of 2013.  You can see just how complicated his delivery is, making it difficult for him to repeat it.  And when pitchers have trouble repeating their delivery, they tend to lose their command, and poor command has been an issue that has troubled Jimenez throughout his career.

Jimenez 2012 GIF

Jimenez 2013 GIF

Essentially, this signing is a gamble, and a pretty expensive gamble at that.  In my opinion, there were similar gambles to add 4-6 WAR of pitching earlier in the offseason, at a much cheaper cost.  I’m mainly talking about Josh Johnson (who I actually suggested the Orioles target early in the offseason), but to a lesser extent Dan Haren, Gavin Floyd (who the team did go after), and possibly even Johan Santana (who is still available).  Sure, each of those options come with an injury risk, but as shown above, Jimenez comes with a performance risk, and none of those other pitchers required a commitment of 4 years and $50 million dollars and the loss of a 1st round draft pick.

As I said before, I think the main question with the Jimenez signing comes down to whether you’re signing him to make a run in 2014 and 2015, or if you’re looking for a proven veteran to provide some value in the middle of the rotation during 2016 and 2017.  Ideally, you’d want both, and would prefer great production in the first 2 years rather than the last two as long as you think the team has a realistic shot at contending during the current “window”.  However, if the Orioles were going to spend $50 million on a free agent starting pitcher before the 2014 season, one of the more consistent options may have been a better choice considering what the Baltimore rotation may look like in 2016 and 2017.  A lot can happen between now and then, but here’s a preview.

Also, keep in mind, that if everything goes right, Hunter Harvey (the #38 prospect on Keith Law’s 2014 Top 100, ESPN Insider required) could be close to contributing by then as well.  Again, a lot can happen, but 3 years away, and this rotation looks like it could be pretty special.  With this in mind, would you rather have Jimenez in this potential rotation, or one of either Matt Garza or Ricky Nolasco plus the #17 draft pick in the 2014 draft for the exact same price?  I think it’s an interesting question to ask, and assuming good health, I think I would prefer the consistency of Garza or Nolasco plus the draft pick over Jimenez.

In the end, none of this could matter.  Perhaps Jimenez is consistently good or above average for all 4 years of his deal, or maybe he’s bad enough that the Orioles need to find someone to take his spot in the rotation before we even make it to 2016.  A team can plan for its future any way they want, however, they need to be prepared to adapt to their plans getting sidetracked by any number of things.  That starting rotation the Orioles MAY have in 2016 and 2017 looks tremendous, but you have to be prepared for the fact that there is a non-zero chance that no one on that list will actually be in the rotation, or even on the team.  With that in mind, maybe the safest thing you can do is make a $50 million bet for the 2014 season, and pray that you end up on the better end of it when the season comes to a close.

3 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Ubaldo Jimenez”

  1. I mean if all you want to do is keep waiting for the youngsters to come up and produce that might be all you keep doing. The time to strike is now and this guy fits in OPACY. Same with Cruz his 1 year 8 mil deal is perfect for this team who is trying to win now and can still win in the future with them young studs hopefully coming up. At least waiting for the young studs to produce is not our only hope. GREAT MOVES O’S!! #ORIOLES

  2. oriolesprovingground Says:

    It’s not a bad signing, but not who I would have focused on in the beginning of the offseason. But they obviously needed some more starting pitching, and out of who was left, Jimenez gave them the best impact/upside to help them contend in 2014. It’s tough to know what you’re going to get out of him, but there’s a chance he could be REALLY good.

  3. […] to blow his projection out of the water depending on when he’s actually put in the rotation.  As I’ve discussed before, Jimenez could exceed his projection as well, but he could also just as easily fall short of it.  […]

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