After a winter of discontent in Charm City, the Baltimore Orioles took a talented team into spring training without adequate offseason additions. By shelling out a long-term deal for Ubaldo Jimenez, the team took a worthwhile risk.
Barring a snafu with a physical—something always possible in Baltimore—the Orioles landed a top-of-the-rotation arm. The news, per Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, rewards patience for a fanbase that had difficulty watching their team remain dormant for most of the winter.
If baseball had been listening, this move wouldn't have come as a surprise. Orioles general manager Dan Duquette told Jonah Keri of Grantland that the team payroll could come close to $100 million before Opening Day:
We’ve got a budget where we can compete in the East. We operate within the market. That’s the right way to go about it. We put significant resources into the current team, into re-signing guys. A lot of guys are getting raises because they’re doing well. Through careful reinvestments, we’ve built a contending team, and we’re confident we’ll do that again this year.
After avoiding arbitration with Matt Wieters, Baltimore sat at just less than $80 million with six weeks until the start of the regular season. If an option presented itself, the Orioles were poised to pounce.
To be fair, Jimenez isn't perfect. If he was, the draft-pick compensation attached to his free agency wouldn't have mattered and a contract in excess of $100 million would have arrived in his agent's mailbox within the first few weeks of the hot-stove season.
Over the last four years, Jimenez has been one of the most confounding starters in baseball. When he's good, few pitchers are more dominant. Yet, when he's not, it's hard to justify keeping him around for more than one season. By offering Jimenez a four-year pact, the Orioles are betting big on his good side.
When the 30-year-old right-hander arrives in Sarasota, Fla., to join his new teammates, he'll find a franchise eerily similar to himself: talented, yet flawed.
Despite winning 93 and 85 games, respectively, over the last two years, it's hard to find a good word written about the Orioles' trajectory or 2014 outlook.
Part of that was due to a confounding offseason in which Jim Johnson was traded away, Nate McLouth was allowed to depart in free agency and little groundwork was reported on long-term deals for talents like Chris Davis and Matt Wieters.
Another major part of the doom and gloom surrounding Baltimore's chances in the AL East: starting pitching.
Or, a lack of high-end starting pitching.
Despite playing winning baseball in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1996-1997, the Orioles didn't impress analysts. Led by Buck Showalter's preparedness and an outstanding offense, the team overcame poor starting pitching to contend in two consecutive years.
How poor? Baltimore's starters pitched to a 4.42 ERA in 2012, good for 21st in the sport. Last year, that number rose to 4.57 and 27th in baseball. Only the Astros, Blue Jays and Twins posted worse ERAs last season. In reality, the Orioles should have been praised for winning so often despite awful starting pitching.
Jimenez might not be the cure to everything that ails Baltimore, but he's a significant upgrade. Based on his performance in 2013, the Orioles just signed one of the best and most unique pitchers in the world.
Last year, only seven starting pitchers made 30 starts, posted an ERA of 3.30 or better and struck out at least one batter per inning. The first six names on that list (subscription required)—Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez, A.J. Burnett and Stephen Strasburg—aren't hard to guess. Outside of Burnett, they've profiled as dominant pitchers on a yearly basis.
The last man among that septet: Ubaldo Jimenez.
No right-minded baseball fan would bet on Jimenez to match Sale, Hernandez or Strasburg in production over the next four years. Quite honestly, Jimenez's biggest supporters wouldn't even make that claim.
Yet, the Orioles didn't sign him to win a Cy Young or match the best arms in baseball on a pitch-by-pitch basis. Instead, he's been brought into Baltimore to upgrade a rotation that has been holding back a tremendous core of offensive talent.
From Chris Davis to Adam Jones to J.J. Hardy to Nick Markakis to Matt Wieters, Baltimore's core of position players are all between the ages of 27 and 31. That group doesn't even include 21-year-old phenom Manny Machado. By the end of 2014, he could supplant his elders as the best player on the roster. As they smash the ball around Camden Yards, the team needed to support their efforts with capable starting pitching.
A quick peak at the new-look Orioles rotation gives a glimpse as to what Baltimore has built around them.
|Projected 2014 Orioles Rotation (2013 Statistics)|
Led by Jimenez and 2013 All-Star Chris Tillman, the rotation has a chance to surprise. Right now, neither of Baltimore's top pitching prospects—Kevin Gausman or Dylan Bundy—are projected to be part of the rotation when camp breaks. Gausman has all the ability to win the No. 5 starter job. Bundy, recovering from Tommy John surgery, could force his way into the mix by mid-summer.
Jimenez or not, the Orioles won't be confused with the rotations assembled in Washington, Detroit or Los Angeles. That doesn't mean that the Orioles aren't deserving of baseball's attention right now, though.
If Jimenez can bring the strikeout rate, durability and second-half dominance (1.72 ERA in 78.1 IP after July 22) he displayed in Cleveland last summer, the Orioles may have done enough to improve a team that's averaged 89 victories over the last two years.
Awarding close to $50 million, per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, to a pitcher that owns one of the worst strikeout-to-walk ratios over the last decade comes with significant risk (subscription required). Over the next four years, Jimenez could pitch down to his 2011-2012 standards (5.03 ERA), pitting this deal as a disaster for Duquette and Baltimore's front office.
The risk associated with this deal is evident, but so is the upside. If Jimenez performs admirably, the Orioles can contend in the AL East and for a spot in October.
For a franchise that hasn't won a postseason series since 1997, the time is now to command respect and show baseball that there's a team to be taken seriously in Baltimore.
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Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.