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The Orioles need a strong season from Ubaldo Jimenez, which could be bad news

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Jimenez struggled in 2016 after posting a 5.44 ERA in 142.1 innings with the Orioles. Things must change this season. The Orioles need him to be better.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Ubaldo Jimenez took the hill for what some would call a meaningless Spring Training game in the monotonous stretch of March. This particular time of the year is notorious for overreactions that aren’t valid, but they are shouted from the rooftops regardless because ... well, what else would we be talking about on March 15?

In the aforementioned exhibition against the Red Sox, I decided to jot down a few notes on the outing.

It didn’t take more than six batters before full panic mode was embraced.

Jimenez consistently struggled with his command in the first inning, unable to throw strike one and leaving balls over the plate to destroy any sense of rhythm he might’ve had hoped for prior to the outing. He settled down in the second and third innings — retiring six in a row — but it was too late undo the alarms that were sounding in preparation for this post.

It’s not that the Orioles should be worried about Ubaldo Jimenez due to his performance in one inning of spring ball. Truthfully, it’s that they should be concerned when every factor currently at play is lumped together.

The tough truth

Ubaldo Jimenez is entering his 11th season as a regular MLB starter. In this age 33 season, it feels like we’re light years away from his brilliant 2010 season in which he placed 3rd in Cy Young voting after compiling a 19-8 record with a 2.88 ERA.

That year was remarkable — he posted a 1.15 ERA in a season in which he averaged a not-great 3.7 walks per nine innings. In 222.1 innings, Jimenez allowed just 164 hits. That’s not just good. That would constitute as an all-time great number.

Unfortunately for both Jimenez and the Orioles, the year is no longer 2010.

The right-hander has since pitched six seasons in the big leagues — five and a half in the AL — and he’s yet to return to All-Star form. Now, Jimenez hasn’t nearly been useless. In fact, one could say he’s been a very productive innings eater for the Orioles throughout his stint in Baltimore.

You wouldn’t want to use the word perfect, or even above-average to describe what he’s provided for the Birds, but it’s been enough to help the rotation limp to the finish line. These days, it seems like that is all that’s needed for the team to contend into October.

But with the current state of the very thin rotation in Baltimore, we are forced to take the “worst-case scenario” approach with every seemingly stable arm in the mix. And even though Jimenez isn’t necessarily stable, he’s one of the closest things to it on the current Orioles roster.

That is what is awfully frightening.

MLB teams should enter their season with at least six, if not seven viable and healthy options to start in 2017. This doesn’t include prospects (think Chris Lee or Jayson Aquino in this case), but major-league ready arms that could be rushed into the rotation if needed for the potential of five or six solid innings. These six and seven arms don’t have to project out to a season of brilliance, but they should at least be counted upon to not completely implode when their name is called.

In Baltimore, there exists no sixth or seventh reliable starter. And because of that, Jimenez is put into an awfully unfortunate situation in 2017.

The need doesn’t fit the projection

As Chris Tillman seems to be on the shelf for an unknown period of time, Jimenez needs to be an above-average MLB pitcher for the entire 2017 season — at least, that’s what the numbers and situation combine to say.

With Tillman, Jimenez is a back-end starter who will be expected to perform on par with his 2014-2015 results, a two-year span in which he averaged a 4.39 ERA with a 1.42 WHIP.

Without Tillman, those numbers need to be altered a bit. If the ace is sidelined for an extended period of time, you'd like for Jimenez to inch his ERA closer to the 4.00 range, not great but acceptable for a third or fourth man in the rotation. We’re not asking for some type of SuperUbaldo to emerge from the shadows and save Orioles Land — merely league-average stuff to let the lineup do its thing and win some ballgames.

The problem is that Jimenez doesn’t possess league-average stuff or results at this point in his career. His fastball averaged less than 90 miles per hour for the first time in his career last year. He’s walked an average of 4.3 batters per nine innings during his time in Baltimore. Every time he takes the mound, there’s worry and uncertainty aplenty.

Add in last year’s 5.44 mark and Jimenez has a 4.72 ERA and 4.33 FIP as an Oriole. He’s not getting any younger, and the season projections on FanGraphs speak to that in a disappointing way.

The “what if” and the lack of solution

As I mentioned at the onset of this post, this is admittedly a somewhat reactionary post — I won’t hide from that one. Last week’s struggle against a good Red Sox lineup was concerning for both Jimenez and the Orioles as a whole, which is what this is really all about.

The lack of depth in the Orioles rotation puts Jimenez on thin ice, which is far from an ideal situation. The “what ifs” are plentiful — further regression and or injury being the two major situations in which the team could be forced to cut Jimenez’s innings significantly. If that’s the case, the team’s rotation options will be sparse enough to be at risk of not just missing the playoffs, but having the worst starting rotation in the Buck Showalter era.

Tillman, Gausman, Bundy, Jimenez and Miley is the current outlook when everything is going swimmingly.

Take away Tillman (which appears likely for now) and an average rotation goes to a poor one.

Take away Jimenez and you’re left with the unpredictable Gausman/Bundy duo with Wade Miley, who couldn’t get outs with the Birds in 2016 and has been disappointing in his early spring starts.

Should Jimenez be forced out of the rotation, disaster strikes for the Orioles. Teams need the innings-eater type of pitcher at the bottom of their rotation; for a short time, Jimenez has been able to embrace that role. You haven’t always known what you’ll be getting, but there’s always been potential for him to put up a performance that puts the team in a position to win.

This year, if any type of regression for Jimenez occurs, Showalter’s rotation will be thinner than its ever been.

Unless the team adds an outside arm, the 33-year-old must improve for the Orioles to contend. And without a doubt, that thought shouldn’t sit well for anyone involved with the team.