The Colorado Rockies and 25-year-old pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez agreed to a four-year deal, with two club options that leaves Jimenez under the control of the Rockies through 2014, the first year Jimenez would be eligible for free agency.
The deal is for $10 million over the first four years, and could reach $22.75 million if the options are picked up. Both years of the options contain a $1 million buyout.
Jimenez, who just completed his first full season in the big leagues, showed extreme promise. He has a fastball that is in the upper 90's, occasionally hitting 100 MPH. He is not just a flame thrower though, Jimenez has a knee buckling breaking ball when it is on.
The Rockies targeted a long-term deal for Jimenez a year after signing Aaron Cook, Troy Tulowitzki, Manny Corpas, and Brad Hawpe to similar deals that took them into their free agency years.
The deal is somewhat of a risk for both parties, but a calculated risk. For the Rockies, Jimenez, who went 12-12 with a 3.99 ERA in his first full season in Major League Baseball, could do what many prospects in the past have done and put up pedestrian numbers. Also, the team has to figure in the potential of a hard-throwing pitcher getting hurt.
As far a Jimenez goes, he is giving up his three arbitration years and potentially one year of free agency, where, if he continues to develop, could put him in position to get a huge paycheck from a large market team.
For both sides though, it allows a sense of security. The team has a guaranteed dollar amount that they will be paying Jimenez for at least four years, potentially saving millions if Jimenez turns into the pitcher they think he will develop into. For Jimenez, it guards against injury, or lack of productivity, and gives him security for the future, regardless of performance.
The Rockies, who traded Matt Holliday early in the offseason, have taken heat from fans and the media for a lack of commitment to winning. This stance may be a difficult one to defend after the Jimenez signing.
The Rockies front office believed that the 2007 team would be good, but they did not expect a trip to the World Series. They believed that the team would be ready for contention in 2008.
After the World Series run, ownership realized that they had found a formula for success.
Playing in Denver, the Rockies will never have the kind of monetary resources that the bigger market teams have at hand. They knew that if they were to be consistently competitive, they would need to sign their younger players to risky, but potentially money-saving contracts.
After the 2007 pennant, the front office wasted no time, quickly signing Cook, Tulowitzki, Corpas, and Hawpe. They also tried to sign a long-term deal with Holliday, but ran into a brick wall in Holliday's agent, Scott Boras. Boras is well known for his lack of willingness to sign a long-term deal before the player can test the free agent market.
When the Rockies did try to act like a large market franchise and sign big name players they failed miserably. In 2000 they signed big-name, high-priced free agent pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle to contracts that tied up over $180 million. Both pitchers were busts and set the Rockies back financially for the next six years.
Talks with Boras about Holliday continued into Spring Training, but the Rockies, after offering a deal reportedly close to $120 million over seven years, realized they would be outbid for Holliday once he became a free agent after the 2009 season.
The only compensation the Rockies would receive at that point for Holliday would be two compensation draft picks in 2010, something that would be unacceptable for losing a player of Holliday's ilk.
Unfortunately for the Rockies and their fans, the front office may have realized their new plan two years too late.
Had the Rockies realized the player that Holliday would become, they may have had a better chance of signing him to a deal that would take him into his free agency years. Because Holliday had two All-Star appearances and solid years behind him, he would not come as cheap as the other players with less service time.
Another player who may be out of reach for the Rockies is third baseman Garrett Atkins. Atkins has never been an All-Star, but has put up numbers that would suggest he could be one.
Had the Rockies formula been in place, both Holliday and Atkins may have been locked in for a long time.
Despite the loss of Holliday, and the anticipated loss of Atkins, the Rockies front office is telling their fans that that they are committed to keeping talent in Denver.
Fans and some members of the media are having a hard time seeing that in the short term. They see losing Holliday, possibly the franchise's best player ever, as a sign that the Rockies will be the newest farm system for the rest of the league.
However, what fans will eventually realize is that Holliday and Atkins will be the last of the big name players that escape to another team for a big paycheck.
Depending on their play, it would be conceivable that the Rockies could lock up prospects Ian Stewart, Franklin Morales, Chris Iannetta, and further down the road, Jhoulys Chacin, another prized pitching prospect coming up through the system.
The team will inevitably miss on some of these long-term deals. That is always a risk with prospects. However, when they miss, it will cost them far less than signing a big-name, high-priced free agent who does not produce.
While their may be growing pains involved while the Rockies watch some of their prospects get on the job training, they ensure themselves that they will never be saddled with contracts that cripple their ability to get talent that will produce for them.
At some point, the Rockies may be willing to take the risk of signing a player after their free agency years come, but this formula will narrow the teams focus and minimize mistakes with big dollars.
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