When the Orioles signed Ubaldo Jimenez four years ago to what remains the biggest free agent contract the franchise has ever given to a pitcher, they were surely hoping for better than what they got. Here in the present, it’s long past time to stop thinking about hopes and face up to reality. The O’s can’t afford to wait around for Jimenez any longer.
We have heard all of the excuses through four years of watching Jimenez, four years in which there has only been one season where he didn’t get dumped into the bullpen out of desperation at how much he was struggling. This latest bullpen exile has come much earlier in the season than any of the previous ones and that’s probably because Jimenez had his worst April and May yet.
There’s just no way to dress up a stretch of nine starts in which Jimenez averaged barely more than five innings per start, walking 29 batters in 49.1 innings and giving up eleven home runs. Batters have an .812 OPS against Jimenez this season. If that was a single player’s batting numbers and he was on the Orioles, he would be second on the team in OPS this season, trailing only Trey Mancini.
What’s worse, you can’t even really count on Jimenez to be able to do much out of the bullpen. That was famously demonstrated in the Wild Card game last year and more recently in Saturday’s loss to the Red Sox, when the Orioles were surely hoping Jimenez could pitch the final two innings of the game and save the other relievers.
Jimenez took 36 pitches to get through one inning in which he gave up two runs. He could not pitch the ninth, and what’s more, the runs he gave up, having come into a one-run game, later proved to be the runs that sank the Orioles chances of winning. If he can’t even reliably eat innings, what good is he?
In fairness, there were the relief stints on May 3 and May 28 in which Jimenez more than did the job. Really, though, a guy is not in a good place, and the team is not in a good place, if there has to be a parade thrown every time he has a somewhat acceptable relief outing.
The past patience that the Orioles showed with Jimenez was rewarded, to an extent, by some feel-good starts. Jimenez will always have a place in Orioles lore for being the starting and winning pitcher when the team clinched the AL East in 2014. And Jimenez was actually the second-best Orioles pitcher in 2015, with his 4.11 ERA, but since those Orioles only went 81-81, it didn’t mean all that much.
Even last year, as bad as it was for Jimenez, saw him contribute to the Orioles playoff chances in a positive way when he rejoined the rotation from late August on and pitched to a 3.12 ERA over eight starts. That was a nice story at the time, though its lasting impact was blunted by Jimenez’s contribution towards the 2016 O’s season’s abrupt end from the moment he stepped on the mound in Toronto in October.
The previous Jimenez revivals were a product of patience on the Orioles part, but also desperation. There was not ever much chance that they were going to throw their hands up and give up on Jimenez when he had guaranteed years beyond the current season remaining. What’s more, there was no one breaking down the gates to get into the Orioles rotation with such strong performance that they couldn’t be ignored.
That’s changed in 2017. With each passing game, Jimenez is owed less by the Orioles. There is $9 million deferred in his contract, but outside of that, they are about four months away from not having to pay him any more money. The Jimenez contract will not have any significant impact on next year’s payroll. They are close to being free of ever having to worry about his erratic pitching again.
There may actually be something resembling depth behind Jimenez, too. The Orioles spent the offseason and spring training stockpiling optionable pitchers who could be spot starters, long relievers, or even possibly regular starting pitchers if their performance and the team’s need dictated it.
For now, that’s turned into Alec Asher supplanting Jimenez in the rotation. Kicking Jimenez into the bullpen throws a wrench into the regular shuffling of those same optionable arms - the Logan Verrett, Gabriel Ynoa, Mike Wright class of player - because Jimenez is just a dead weight spot who can’t be optioned and can’t be relied on for much.
It sucks to reach this point with Jimenez. By all accounts, there’s hardly a nicer guy to be found in MLB. That comes through clearly in interviews. I’ll never forget Jimenez’s response to the brouhaha sparked by the late Yordano Ventura throwing at Manny Machado last season.
Jimenez was just so genuinely concerned for his younger countryman in a way that you seldom seem baseball players express, especially not in the aftermath of a brawl between two teams where players are talking about the people on the other side of the fight.
Any time you hear a second- or third-hand account of somebody meeting Jimenez, it’s always about what a nice guy he is. Having a guy like that to root for on your favorite baseball team is pretty good. It would be just a little bit better if that guy didn’t have a 4.94 ERA in the 97 games he’s pitched in an Orioles uniform. That makes it tough to stay sentimental for long.
Maybe another Jimenez revival is still waiting in the wings. Orioles fans have only ever seen at most six week bursts of the promise that led the Orioles to decide to sign Jimenez in the first place.
If the team is patient enough, another one of those bursts may be there for this season. If that turns out to be the case, that would certainly help the Orioles get somewhere for the rest of the season.
Still, there’s a cost to waiting around for that possibility of a turnaround, too, an opportunity cost being paid every time he pitches and really every day that Jimenez spends on the roster. It’s time for the Orioles to recognize that it never really worked out, it’s never really going to, and move on with the hope that they will be smarter about free agent pitcher signings in the future.