What is the price of optimism? In the case of the Orioles with Ubaldo Jimenez, the answer is $50 million and the #17 overall pick in the 2014 draft. They signed Jimenez in the throes of dreams of what they thought he could be, rather than what he actually was. The price of the Orioles' optimism for Orioles fans was having to put up with 125.1 innings of a Kevin Gregg-ian walk rate from a pitcher who bore only cursory resemblance to the one the Orioles claimed to have signed.
There's no greater illustration of the Orioles' pie-in-the-sky hopes than the press release they sent out announcing the Jimenez signing, which made boasting statements such as Jimenez having a 61.1% ground ball percentage since 2008, with a 1.57 GB/FB ratio, and that he had made at least 31 starts in each of those seasons.
Had they gotten a pitcher who was any of these things, well, that would have been a nice world to live in - although the 2014 season we got was pretty good as it is. As far as Jimenez is concerned, they sure seem like they were kidding themselves.
According to Fangraphs, Jimenez never topped a 54.4% ground ball rate and had a GB% over 50 in only two seasons, making that 61.1% an impossibility. Baseball Reference deemed that Jimenez had a GB/FB of 0.93 for the same time that the Orioles boasted Jimenez had a 1.57 GB/FB. If you increase his actual GB/FB by half as much again, you still don't get to what the Orioles claim he reached. It's almost like they wanted to believe for their own sakes that all of this was true, because if it wasn't, they had just made a horrible mistake.
For much of the year, Jimenez looked like a horrible mistake. He came out of the gate looking horrid, assaulting us with a 6.59 ERA by the end of April, walking 17 batters and allowing five home runs in only 27.1 innings. There was nothing of the pitcher who had a 3.30 ERA for Cleveland in 2013.
Though he had a few decent months in there, this poor performance persisted on the whole. His K% dropped by about 20% compared to last year, while his BB% increase by over a third. When it came to fastball velocity, he's lost at least a mile per hour every year for the last several years, and he's down by about 6mph since his two masterful seasons for the Rockies in 2009 and 2010.
Things were so bad for a while there that Jimenez was placed on the disabled list with an injury that reports claimed he suffered when he rolled his ankle as he stepped out of his car into a pothole at his apartment. As they dawdled with reactivating Jimenez, you had to wonder whether the ankle injury was even real, and if it was, whether Dan Duquette somehow orchestrated the placement of that pothole. It was a scant surprise that Jimenez's departure from the rotation led to its prompt collective improvement.
More than Jimenez just getting bad results, it was actually unpleasant to watch the games that he started. Even when he was doing sort of okay, like in June when he started six games and had a 3.71 ERA, he still walked 23 batters in 34 innings. No surprise that he did not pitch in the ALDS and was left off the ALCS roster entirely.
There's little the Orioles can do with him except keep hoping. They owe him another $37.5 million over the next three seasons. There could well be something to salvage in there. Maybe more time to work with pitching coach Dave Wallace will be a positive for the O's and Jimenez. Wallace seemed to make a difference in 2014 with pitchers as varied as Bud Norris and Zach Britton. He's got an offseason to think about Jimenez.
The velocity that Jimenez could throw as a 26-year-old is probably not returning at age 31. He'd be lucky to get back to where he was at age 28. If he could find a way to get his walk rate back to his career levels - 4.2 per nine innings, still bad, but less bad - that would help, but if it was that easy to make that adjustment happen, they would have made it happen already.
It comes back, again, to blind hope, that perhaps his entire season was disrupted by signing after spring training had already begun, that with a full amount of time in camp they can work with him in particular, now that they know him and presumably have some idea of what is wrong. Or perhaps he was battling some undisclosed injury through the season that will heal itself between now and April, and stay healed all of next season.
After all, it was only in 2013 that Jimenez had that 3.30 ERA. That would fit in just fine in the Orioles rotation. Jimenez will be in the Orioles rotation to start out the next season - barring injury - no matter how he looks, so we can only hope he looks better. It would be tough for him to look worse. Please don't take that as a challenge, Ubaldo. Thanks.
One bit of silver lining: The signing of Jimenez freed the Orioles from worrying about giving up a first round pick to sign Nelson Cruz to a one-year deal. With only a second rounder at stake, that was an easier choice for them to make. That worked out pretty well for the team, wouldn't you say? Maybe in 2015 he can do something positive for the team in his own right. Stranger things have happened.