Why Ubaldo Jimenez Is Shaping Up to Be Huge Free-Agent Steal

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Why Ubaldo Jimenez Is Shaping Up to Be Huge Free-Agent Steal
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In this era of Major League Baseball, where the most mediocre starting pitchers are getting four-year contracts, it's rare to call anyone a bargain. 

Yet when you examine the current free-agent market, including Masahiro Tanaka even though he isn't a free agent in the traditional sense, it is hard not to fall in love with the upside that Ubaldo Jimenez presents. 

First, while we won't officially know his price until the contract is signed at the end of January, Tanaka's price tag is already shaping up to be one of the biggest overpays of the offseason. 

On Tuesday, Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun Times cited an industry source as saying that Tanaka's contract could climb up to $140 million. 

Keep in mind, while he's 25 years old, Tanaka has never pitched in a Major League Baseball game and, based on that report, is on the verge of signing one of the biggest contracts for a pitcher in the history of the sport. 

Meanwhile, Jimenez has a long track record of success at the highest level, a top-five finish in Cy Young voting and, just days away from his 30th birthday, more than enough gas left in the tank to hold his value for four or five years. 

If we put a brief pin in the 2012 season, take a look at Jimenez's numbers since 2008, his first full season in Major League Baseball. 

Season GS  W-L  ERA   IP H HR    K-BB WHIP WAR
2008 34 12-12 3.99 198.2 182 11 172-103 1.435 3.9
2009 33 15-12 3.47 218.0 183 13 198-85 1.229 5.6
2010 33 19-8 2.88 221.2 164 10 214-92 1.155 6.5
2011 32 10-13 4.68 188.1 186 17 180-78 1.402 3.3
2013 32 13-9 3.30 182.2 163 16 194-80 1.330 3.2

Two things that immediately jump out about Jimenez's career: Health and missing bats. He may not be the most consistent pitcher, but teams know that the right-hander will be on the mound every fifth day and provide 180-200 innings of work. 

Since 2008, Jimenez is tied for seventh in starts (195), eighth in strikeouts per nine innings (8.35), 10th in hits allowed (1,068), 13th in total strikeouts (1,101), 14th in Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement for pitchers (22.6) and 19th in innings pitched (1186.0). He's also allowed the fourth-fewest homers (92), despite playing 3.5 seasons in Colorado. 

Jimenez is certainly not without flaws. Control has never been his strong suit, as the soon-to-be 30-year-old has the most walks in baseball since 2008 (533), highest walks per nine innings (4.04) and fourth most wild pitches (72). 

John Gress/Getty Images
Everyone will point out Ubaldo Jimenez's abysmal 2012 season as a huge cause for concern.

There is also the outlier season in 2012, which we will now dive into. Jimenez was a mess two years ago, posting a 5.40 ERA, 1.51 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 1.27 homers per nine innings and a minuscule 0.1 Fangraphs' WAR. 

That dreadful showing did carry over to the start of 2013, when Jimenez posted a 7.23 ERA in five April starts. But then something clicked in, allowing the former All-Star to pitch like he did at his peak. 

Jimenez tied for the MLB lead with 3.0 Fangraphs' WAR in the second half of 2013, first in fielding independent ERA (2.17) and was second in ERA (1.82) behind Clayton Kershaw and strikeouts per nine innings (10.71). 

Normally I would say that such a small sample size of performance makes Jimenez a strong candidate to be one of the most overpaid free agents this offseason, but when there is something tangible you can look at to pinpoint why things got better, it makes me less skeptical. 

Take a look at two videos, the first one from 2012 and the second from the end of 2013. 

Jimenez's mechanics were a complete mess in 2012 and at the start of 2013. The video on top perfectly illustrates all the problems he was having. He had no path to the plate whatsoever and the left lead leg is pointing toward the dugout. 

You can also see Jimenez's hip flying open as he moves to the plate, negating what little control he had over the ball and putting more pressure on his arm to generate velocity instead of using the lower half to push off the rubber. 

Now watch the second video, from September 14, 2013 against the Chicago White Sox. Yes, the competition wasn't great, but that's not what you need to focus on. 

Jimenez is much quieter and direct to the plate. His left leg still isn't straight to the plate, but it doesn't fly away from his body the way it did in 2012. The hips stay closed throughout the delivery, making it easier for the right-hander to control all of his pitches and use his lower half to generate more velocity. 

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He's still more arm-heavy throughout the delivery than I am comfortable with, though the fact he was able to pinpoint a lot of problems and correct them certainly speaks volumes about his work ethic. 

The days when Jimenez averaged 95-96 mph with the fastball are gone, but that might be for the best because it's forced him to become a pitcher. He found new weapons with his slider last season and got more comfortable with his split-finger fastball, generating 110 swings and misses from July through September with those two pitches. 

Combine all of that with what it will cost a team to sign Jimenez, and suddenly he becomes a lot more attractive than Tanaka, Ervin Santana, Matt Garza or any of the other top free-agent pitchers still looking for a contract. 

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that Jimenez's agents are looking for a deal in the range of $14 million per season. 

Considering we have seen Bartolo Colon get $10 million per season from the Mets, Scott Kazmir get $11 million per season from the Athletics and Ricky Nolasco get $12.25 million per season from the Twins, I would say that $14 million per season for Jimenez looks pretty good. 

With rapidly escalating prices for pitching, being able to say that one of the top free agents is actually going to be a steal feels very refreshing.

All the pressure will be on Jimenez to keep his late-season surge in 2013 going, especially if he's without the services of Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway. Something tells me he will be OK. 

 

Note: All stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. Videos courtesy of MLB Advanced Media. 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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