Ubaldo Jimenez has had bad seasons before. By now, the veteran pitcher’s up-and-down tendencies are well known around the league. But his performance for the 2017 Orioles has been, quite possibly, his worst to date. If he doesn’t turn it around in the near future, the right-hander’s time in Baltimore could soon be over.
The slowest of starts
Since Jimenez has only thrown 26 innings to this point, he doesn’t qualify for any of the league “leaderboards”. If he did, his 6.58 ERA would be one of the five worst marks in all of baseball. Why so few innings for a regular starter? Well, of his six starts, Jimenez has gotten through the fifth inning just once, a sterling 7.2 shutout innings against the Reds on April 19th. Apart from that, Ubaldo’s starts have lasted 3.0, 3.1, 4.1 and 4.1 innings, respectively.
The peripherals aren’t kind to Jimenez either. Per nine innings, he is averaging 6.23 strikeouts, 6.23 walks and 2.08 home runs. All of those are career worsts. Added to that, he has just a .256 batting average against on balls in play, when his career average is up at .295. So, believe it or not, it’s possible he deserves to have even worse numbers overall.
That said, there is clearly room for Jimenez to improve and, in all likelihood, he will. Right now, his home run to fly ball rate is a ridiculous 20.0 percent; that has to come down. And he is throwing a touch harder than he did a year ago; his average fastball is up about a half mph to 90.5 mph, according to Fangraphs.
But the encouraging signs are few and far between for the former All-Star. Jimenez is worse now than he was a year ago when he was banished to the bullpen for a large chunk of the season. It’s possible a similar fate may await him, but his 6.14 career ERA as a reliever suggests that may not be an ideal situation either.
Part of what has kept Jimenez in the Charm City the last few seasons, despite poor results, has been his hefty contract. Prior to the 2014 season, he signed on with the Orioles for a four-year, $50 million deal. It’s simple, if the O’s cut him at any point, they have to eat the remainder of that pact and replace him with someone else. So, it has made sense to trot him out to the mound and see what he can do no matter the outcome.
The other part is that the Orioles have had trouble, year-in and year-out, finding major league-ready starting pitchers. Last spring, the team prematurely cut Miguel Gonzalez. Prior to this season, they traded Yovani Gallardo to the Mariners in exchange for Seth Smith. And they have seen two of their favored, home-grown arms, Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright, be successful in short stints but struggle over extended exposure to big league lineups.
Both of those factors seem to me diminishing as the 2017 season wears on. It is the final year of Jimenez’s contract, which means that the cost of cutting him disappears more and more every day. He is set to make $13.5 million, so the O’s would only be saddled with a pro-rated amount of his salary for the remainder of the season and could then take him off the books completely in the winter.
Chris Tillman’s injury to begin the season left the O’s one starter short entering the season. It became a revolving door of pitchers, and you could view it as a glorified tryout for each of them should any MLB starter falter or get hurt.
So far, it has been a smashing success. Both Wilson and Jayson Aquino had nice six-inning, one-off showings against Boston, allowing three runs and two runs, respectively. Gabriel Ynoa hasn’t started yet, but he did give the O’s six shutout frames from the bullpen against the White Sox. And Alec Asher has been impressive in 12.1 innings as a starter, allowing four runs while also providing solid performances from the ‘pen.
Of course, none of these options have done enough yet for the Orioles to say, without a doubt, that they are better than Jimenez. And it would be improbable for any of them to be as good as the former Cy Young contender was down the stretch in 2016. From August 25 through the end of the year, Jimenez started eight games and went 6-2 with a 3.12 ERA and a .190 batting average against.
It’s those stretches of play, and even his outstanding performance against Cincinnati earlier this season, that keep you wanting to see more from Jimenez. While his velocity has plummeted from where it was at the start of his career, he is still able to put enough funk on a baseball to baffle major league hitters. The trouble is he just hasn’t be consistent with it since putting on an Orioles uniform.
A murky future
The Orioles are a very good team, and performing better than even the most positive fan could have expected. They are not the type of club who needs a “veteran innings eater” so that the young players can “learn how to be a professional” at this point. If Jimenez is not producing, he should not be in the rotation. It’s that simple.
However, no matter how bad he pitches, it feels unlikely that he would be cut completely. All of the options mentioned before, Wilson, Aquino, Ynoa and Asher, are all option-able pieces.
Unless Buck Showalter is ready to give one of them a dedicated rotation spot every fifth day, then the team does not need to “make room” for them. They can continue doing exactly the same thing that they have been, which is making a start and then returning to Norfolk or, in the case of Ynoa, making a DL stint.
Jimenez, on the other hand, has no options obviously. Once he is gone, he is gone for good. Trading him doesn’t seem like a viable option and even if it was, the return would be minimal apart from some minor salary relief. What seems more likely is that the Orioles give him a few more chances in the rotation. If things go poorly, he heads out to the bullpen before he, inevitably, gets another shot. Could he be cut at some point this year? Sure, but it doesn’t seem to be imminent.