Is Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana the Best Free-Agent Pitcher Still Available?

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterJanuary 24, 2014

Among the remaining big-name free agent starters, would you rather have Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana?
Among the remaining big-name free agent starters, would you rather have Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana?Associated Press

With the biggest name out of the way, the free-agent market for starting pitching, at long last, is ready to get moving.

In the wake of Masahiro Tanaka's historic seven-year, $155 million deal with the New York Yankees on Wednesday, a report Thursday from Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports brought news of a possible four-year, $52 million agreement between Matt Garza and the Milwaukee Brewers, pending a physical. While nothing is official yet, if Garza does sign on the dotted line, that would be a pair of big-name starters off the table in short order.

The top two arms left, then, would be Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana, who are similar in many ways. That is to say, they are both streaky, enigmatic Dominican-born right-handers around the same age coming off strong 2013 seasons.

Both also expected to score big on the open market, which may or may not happen at this point for two key factors. For one, Garza's reported agreement is for an average annual value (AAV) of $13 million, which is lower than many expected, given the price for pitching in free agency. That certainly could impact the eventual salaries for Jimenez and Santana.

Because he was traded from the Cubs to the Rangers, Matt Garza won't cost his new team a pick.
Because he was traded from the Cubs to the Rangers, Matt Garza won't cost his new team a pick.Jim Cowsert/Associated Press/Associated Press

Another reason? Unlike Garza, both Jimenez and Santana are anchored down by draft-pick compensation as a result of their rejecting qualifying offers from their previous teams, the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals, respectively. That, too, will limit the amount of money paid out to this pair.

In offseasons prior, it's likely that one or both of Jimenez and Santana would have signed by now, seeing as starting pitching is always in high demand. Given how Tanaka effectively stalled that market for more than a month, though, as well as teams' rising distaste to surrendering a selection, and well, they remain readily available.

But for teams still searching for pitching help, which one is the safer bet? Scratch that, neither Jimenez nor Santana should be described as "safe." Let's rephrase: Between Jimenez and Santana, which one is the better bet?


Career Comparison

To put this duo in context, here's a quick rundown of some basics:

Breakdown: Ubaldo Jimenez vs. Ervin Santana
2006 (22)DEBUT (AGE)2005 (22)
3.92CAREER ERA4.19
3.78CAREER FIP4.36
2SEASONS W/ 200+ IP5
Baseball Reference and FanGraphs

Again, the similarities here are pretty evident, particularly in terms of age, debut season, number of starts and even career ERA, where the disparity is only about a quarter of a run.

The initial impression, though, also shows the primary difference between these two: Whereas Jimenez has achieved a higher level of success at his peak, Santana has been exactly league average (career ERA+: 100) but more durable and more capable of eating innings.

Neither, though, has been consistent when it comes to performance. On that front,  comparisons also can be made easily via FanGraphs, where it's possible to punch in two names and have a number of charts and graphs display visually how both players stack up against each other—and the league average.

That's especially helpful as a way to see just how much Jimenez and Santana have fluctuated on a year-to-year basis in all sorts of statistics, including ERA, FIP and BABIP.

Fair warning: Clicking on any of those links is like embarking on a roller-coaster ride, so only those with strong stomachs and a seat belt should dare.


The Case for Jimenez

Back when Jimenez was with the Colorado Rockies in his early to mid-20s and looked like he was emerging as one of the game's top pitchers, he was succeeding because he threw hard—very hard—and got grounders.

To wit, Jimenez's average fastball was in the 95-96 mph range those years, while his ground-ball rates were consistently in the high 40 to low 50 percent range, both of which were among the best in baseball.

All of that came together for a handful of magical months in 2010, when Jimenez sported a 2.88 ERA (161 ERA+), 1.16 WHIP and 8.7 K/9 on his way to finishing third in the NL Cy Young Award race.

Soon thereafter, though, things began to fall apart for Jimenez, who struggled with his high-maintenance delivery and a drop in fastball velocity, which led to his being traded to the Indians in July 2011. From there, he ran up an ERA north of 5.00 over the 2011 and 2012 seasons and led the majors with 17 losses in the latter year.

Jimenez's 2013 campaign started off similarly, as the right-hander's ERA sat at 5.57 through last May.

Just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, something clicked. Thanks in large part to first-year pitching coach Mickey Callaway, Jimenez started throwing more strikes and trusting that his stuff was still good enough to get hitters out, as Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer wrote.

Starting with a June 1 eight-inning shutout of the Tampa Bay Rays, Jimenez made 22 starts and pitched to a 2.40 ERA with a 9.7 K/9.

Suddenly, it was 2010 all over again. Except, instead of living off the once-dynamic fastball, Jimenez began relying on his slider more—25 percent of the time, in fact. Call it a much-needed mentality makeover and repertoire revamp.

In the end, Jimenez finished 2013 with a 3.30 ERA (114 ERA+) and his best-ever strikeout rate—9.6 whiffs per nine—while looking much like the Jimenez of old. Perfect timing for a free-agent-to-be.

Also in Jimenez's favor? He's pitched in both leagues and spent the majority of his time in Coors Field, the hitter-friendliest of all parks, making his performance in his good years that much more impressive.


The Case for Santana

Santana, like Jimenez, was a highly regarded prospect in the mid-2000s just before breaking into the bigs for good as a hard-throwing righty with the Los Angeles Angels.

The early portion of Santana's career was defined by one brutally, chronically bad split: His seeming inability to pitch well on the road. While that has calmed down some, Santana's road ERA of 4.73 is still more than a run worse than his home ERA of 3.71 due to all the damage done during his first few seasons.

Still, Santana showed flashes and even had three or four above-average seasons, including 2008—he finished sixth in the AL Cy Young voting—and 2011, when he posted ERA+s of 127 and 111, respectively. 

The other major issue that continues to plague Santana is a proneness to giving up the long ball because he's an extreme fly-ball pitcher with more than 40 percent of batted balls against him heading up instead of down.

Since 2005, Santana's first year, there are 79 pitchers who have thrown at least 1,000 innings, and Santana's 1.22 HR/9 ratio ranks as the eighth highest, according to FanGraphs. This, despite pitching in bigger, more pitcher-friendly parks.

Santana's gopheritis came to a head in 2012, when he allowed a whopping—and league-leading—39 homers, to go with a 5.16 ERA that was the second worst of his career.

No wonder the Angels didn't mind trading Santana to the Royals for a minor leaguer immediately after the season, as Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times wrote. They even kicked in a portion of Santana's salary to get the deal done.

In 2013, though, Santana managed yet another rebound effort in a career that has been full of them. In fact, last year was arguably as good as his impressive '08 campaign: His WHIP of 1.14 was only slightly higher while his 3.24 ERA was better (and his ERA+ was an identical 127).

Unlike Jimenez's turnaround, Santana's didn't come on the heels of a change in pitch usage—he's always been a fastball-slider pitcher. What did change, though, was his ability to get more outs on the ground, as his 46.2 percent ground-ball percentage was a career high, per FanGraphs.

That may or may not be as repeatable, considering the results weren't necessarily triggered by a new means.

The other good thing about 2013? Santana topped 200 innings for the fifth time in his eight full seasons, and third in the past four. There's plenty of value in that, so long as the innings aren't the below-average kind.


The Bottom Line

What's interesting about the way things are shaping up for both Jimenez and Santana is that, despite bounce-back years at just the right time, it's looking more likely that neither will come close to getting the big-money contracts they were hoping for at the outset of the offseason.

In fact, as Buster Olney of ESPN has reported (subscription required), there's even a chance that one or both could find their way back to their previous teams, simply because clubs might be unwilling to give up a first- or second-round selection—along with tens of millions of dollars—to sign them.

While the Indians and Royals are small-market squads, they actually may be able to afford to re-sign their former arms, now that their prices seem to have come down.

Ultimately, if forced to choose between Jimenez and Santana, assuming they'll both be getting similar contracts in the end (think: AAV of $12-14 million), the former just might be the way to go.

Why? As a rule of thumb, when the valleys are almost as deep, go with the higher peak.

Jimenez may, in fact, carry more risk than Santana, primarily due to his funky delivery and more recent track record of extremely poor performance. Still, Jimenez is a full year younger, has succeeded in both leagues, maintains an ability to get grounders and strikeouts and has shown he's capable of more upside when everything is clicking.

Santana, meanwhile, carries about as much downside as does Jimenez, remains homer-prone and has never really proved that he can be anything more than a good No. 3 starter.

To gamble on Jimenez, then, is to hope that whatever he figured out last season is something he can take with him going forward for at least two or three more years. To go for Santana, on the other hand, is to risk perhaps just as much inconsistency from year to year—and heck, start to start—without the same potential payoff.

Regardless, investing big money and multiple years into the roller-coaster rides that are Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana requires a strong stomach. And a seat belt.


Statistics from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs were used in this story. 

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11



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