Orbiting Cleveland: A forecast for Ubaldo Jimenez

Ubaldo Jimenez.

For over a year and half now, the right-hander has arguably been the most heavily scrutinized player within the entire Cleveland Indians organization.

And rightfully so.

As we all know, the Indians paid a great price to acquire Jimenez in July 2011. At the time, the team traded its top two starting pitching prospects, Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for the right-hander.

It’s been a rough go-around for Jimenez since as he’s struggled with the Tribe. Everything that once made him a stud in Colorado has been absent since joining the Indians.

His control has disappeared, his velocity has dwindled, and thus, the strikeouts have declined.

Even after Jimenez posted a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts with the Indians in 2011, it seemed as if there might be a chance things could take a turn for the better.

His numbers were certainly down, but there were some signs that seemed to point toward a bright future. Jimenez’s ERA for 2011 was 4.68, but his FIP of 3.68 and xFIP of 3.71 suggested that he pitched better than his numbers indicated. He also still managed to strikeout plenty of batters as his K/9 rate of 8.60 was merely down from 8.69 in 2010.

Jimenez seemed primed for a resurgence, right? Wrong.

Jimenez hit rock bottom in 2012 and finished 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA in 31 starts. His K/9 rate per fell to a career-low 7.28, and he also walked a career-high 4.84 batters per nine innings. Sadly, even those numbers do not provide justice of just how bad it’s been.

It can be argued that the trade has not worked out for either team, and that’s true — Pomeranz has struggled and has a 5.01 career ERA while White has since been traded to the Houston Astros and has a career ERA of 6.03.

Still, while the trade may have failed for both parties, Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti is not free from blame. While Pomeranz and White have seen their value erode, that was not the case in July 2011. The industry looked at both players as legitimate, high-quality Major League prospects.

But beyond being prospects, the two players were also something else — assets. Two assets that were very tradable and could have netted another promising player other than Jimenez.

However, what’s done is done. The Indians cannot go back in time because they certainly would have done that by now if that were the case.

So, moving forward, is there perhaps any chance that the Jimenez trade could become even remotely salvageable? And, with that being said, could it even one day be viewed as a good trade? Maybe.

Before going any further, let’s make two points. The trade is never going to be looked upon in an overly positive light because the fact will always remain that the Indians could have moved Pomeranz and White for a different young, controllable Major League player.

Also, the trade will never increase too much in value simply for the fact that Jimenez stunk so much in 2011 and 2012. The Indians were expecting that Jimenez would be a front-of-the-rotation starter worth about five wins a year. Instead, Jimenez posted WARs of -0.2 and -0.7 in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

However, let’s say Jimenez does indeed rebound this season while Pomeranz and White continue to struggle. Then, by sheer luck perhaps, could it be said that the Indians made out better in the deal? As stated earlier, the trade would certainly never come across as a great one, but it could at least be looked at as a somewhat passable, good one.

If a rebound is possible, Jimenez will have to prove that his performance on Wednesday was more than just smoke and mirrors. It’s hard to not be encouraged by the right-hander’s performance as Jimenez earned a no-decision while allowing only a solo home run across six innings. There were a number of differences in his performance from last season, including:

  • Control — Jimenez walked only two batters in the entire contest. He also threw 62 percent of his pitches for strikes.
  • Strikeouts — The strikeout pitch was working for Jimenez as he recorded six punchouts in the contest.
  • Body Language — They say seeing is believing and just go back and watch Jimenez’s performance. If it felt different it’s because it was different. He looked lost at times last season, yet he looked much more comfortable out there on the mound on Wednesday.

 While it’s nice to be encouraged, one start is still just that — one start. He had a handful of good starts last season as well, but could Jimenez actually rebound?

The answer to that question — yes.

Why such a concrete answer? Simply because it’s happened before. And it’s happened recently with the Indians even.

While many may have hoped to forget him, I ask fans to search their memory banks for thoughts of Fausto Carmona. Or excuse me, I suppose he should be referred to as Roberto Hernandez now.

It was not that long ago that Hernandez endured a fall from grace that was similar to the one that Jimenez has experienced these past couple years. The pitchers are different, but they’re also in many ways the same.

In his prime, Jimenez was a legitimate ace for the Rockies while Hernandez probably best profiled as middle-of-the-rotation workhorse, but just take a look at some of the very telling similarities between the two:

  • Both players’ stock reached its all-time high after 19-8 seasons. Hernandez went 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA for the Indians in 2007 while Jimenez went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA for the Rockies in 2010.
  • Both players were Cy Young candidates during their respective 19-win seasons. Hernandez finished fourth in the American League while Jimenez finished third in the National League.
  • Since their breakout seasons, both players’ performances and velocity decreased significantly in the two subsequent seasons.

Fans may not recall just how bad things got for Hernandez in the years that followed the 2007 season. The right-hander struggled mightily with his command, and the Indians even sent him back down to the minors.

Yet, one would expect that he would only go for a tuneup at the Triple-A level. That was not the case for Hernandez, who just seemed totally out of control much of the time.

It was so bad, in fact, that the Indians actually sent Hernandez all the way down to Single-A Lake County. He did manage to have a nice start with the Major League club to close out the 2009 season, but Hernandez still seemed like the unlikeliest candidate to have a strong season in 2010.

But that’s exactly what happened.

Hernandez managed to have his first good season since 2007 and went 13-14 with a 3.77 ERA in 210 1/3 innings of work. The difference was simple — command.

Hernandez watched his BB/9 rate spike to 5.2 and 5.0 in 2008 and 2009, respectively, but he was finally able to bring the number down to a much more manageable 3.1 in 2010.

Nothing else really changed for Hernandez as he was no longer able to flash the same velocity that he showed in 2007, yet he became an effective pitcher once again simply because he managed to limit his number of walks. This then brings us back to Jimenez.

Like Hernandez, Jimenez has also struggled mightily with command. He’s never been perfect in that area, but he was at least passable before. However, that was not the case last season as Jimenez walked 4.8 batters per nine innings and rarely gave the Indians a chance to win.

On Wednesday, however, Jimenez walked just two batters across his six innings of work. It was a telling difference from his BB/9 rate in recent years.

Jimenez also impressed in another area on Wednesday: first-pitch strike percentage. For his career, this has been an area where Jimenez has been notoriously poor even when he was mowing down hitters with the Rockies.

If Jimenez is able to improve in this area, he could end up being a very effective pitcher. His first-pitch strike percentage was only 52 percent last season, which also played a key role in the fact that he walked so many batters.

He essentially found himself working from behind the count half of the time, so he was often not able to work with his full arsenal of pitches. This would also lead to many fastballs down the middle of the plate on 3-0 or 3-1 counts, which helps explain the 25 home runs that he allowed.

Clearly, Wednesday’s performance was a major positive for Jimenez, especially in the areas of free passes and first-pitch strike percentage. He seemed in control for the entire evening, which is the primary reason why the Indians had a chance to win.

So, with that in mind, what are the chances that Jimenez can follow Hernandez’s lead and actually rebound in his third season removed from his breakout year? For it to be possible, Jimenez must consistently show command, and the early signs have been encouraging.

Aside from Wednesday’s performance, Jimenez was much more consistent in Spring Training this season. In 30 innings, he recorded 22 strikeouts and walked just seven batters. In comparison, he walked 15 batters and struck out 15 during last season’s spring campaign.

Even with improved command, Jimenez may never be a perfect pitcher. His velocity is never going to reach triple digits as it seemed to routinely do years ago, and he will always be prone to allowing some home runs with his flattened fastball.

Still, the future could be bright if Wednesday’s start and Spring Training were not just mirages and actually are indicators of improved command. Hernandez does not have half the talent of Jimenez, but look what happened once he regained command. Now imagine the potential for Jimenez.

Without his velocity, Jimenez may never strikeout 200 batters again like he did in 2010, but diminishing velocity is just part of the game. Plenty of pitchers deal with it and rebound. Take Jered Weaver for example.

Weaver averaged only 88 miles per hour on his fastball in 2012, down more than two miles per hour from what he averaged in 2010. Yet, the right-hander still went 20-5 with a 2.81 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 2012. The strikeouts were down, yet the overall performance remained consistent because Weaver knows how to pitch.

It obviously would be ludicrous to expect those type of numbers from Jimenez, but the point is that he can still a very effective pitcher regardless of velocity. He throws seven different pitches, and many of them are plus offerings. When you combine that with command, he has the ability to be a deadly competitor.

It’s been tough to watch Jimenez these past two years, and it’s hard to not feel some sympathy for him, especially when you realize that four different pitching coaches have been tasked with dealing with him and his unorthodox delivery since he joined the Indians in 2011. But maybe brighter days are ahead.

It appears as if Jimenez has developed a good rapport with current pitching coach Mickey Callaway. Callaway visited Jimenez twice this winter at his home in the Dominican Republic, and he emphasized a need to work quicker and throw more strikes.

Only time will tell how much Jimenez took Callaway’s words to heart, but early results seem to indicate that those winter Dominican trips went quite well.

It’s been a rough few years for Jimenez, but perhaps 2013 will be the year that he finally puts it all together. Everybody loves a story of redemption and that’s exactly the chance that Jimenez has this year.

His last chance.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s