Ubaldo Jimenez has been anything but a safe bet for fantasy owners since he came over to the American League in the middle of 2011. He struggled with his command and declining velocity, and in 2012 his game really seemed to hit rock bottom as he went 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA.
It wasn’t much better for the better half of last year as well, as he opened with a lousy April and a rocky May that likely had people who took a shot at him sending him to the bench. He started to make some strides in June and July, but he was far from dominant as he only made it out of the fifth inning three times in 11 starts in those months. Then as the dog days of August arrived, something began to click for the enigmatic right-hander. In his final nine starts of the year, with the Indians fighting for a playoff berth, Jimenez reeled off nine straight stellar starts, striking out 79 while walking only 15. After basically two seasons of torturing Indians fans and fantasy owners alike, he was finally pitching like the ace he was supposed to be. Granted, six of those starts came against the Twins (2), Royals, White Sox (2) and Astros, but it doesn’t change the fact that all of the tinkering and adjustments that the Tribe had been working on with him finally translated to the mound.
After he declined the Indians qualifying offer, the question of which team would take the gamble to sign the 30-year-old to the long-term contract he was seeking lingered longer than he or his agent would have liked. It was pretty clear that a return to Cleveland was a long shot at best, but once the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka, teams still in the market for a starter started kicking the tires on possibly the biggest wild card in this year’s free agent class. The Baltimore Orioles finally emerged as the leader in the race to sign him, and it was just announced earlier this week that the O’s had agreed to a four-year $50 million deal, pending a physical. The team seemingly felt pressure to add the fourth year to the deal out of fear that AL East rivals Boston and Toronto were also pursuing the right-hander, as well as a desire to upgrade the top of their rotation to take advantage of a lineup that is ready to compete now.
Now that we finally know that Jimenez will not only be staying in the American League, but also taking his game to the toughest division in the league, we can turn our focus to determining how he might perform in his new digs and whether or not to invest in him for the upcoming fantasy season. The first thing we have to examine is what really drove the late-season turnaround. Was it just another player sensing his upcoming free agency digging deep to ensure a big payday in the off-season? Or did he finally figure out how to deal with the fact that he couldn’t throw it by hitters like he had in the past?
If we look at the numbers, then the answer seems to lean towards the latter. He cleaned up his mechanics and relied on his slider and split-fingered fastball more than he had in years, and those two pitches were at the center of his increased strikeouts. The decision to take a chance on Jimenez in your drafts this season comes down to how strongly you feel he can continue to harness his control, retain his reworked mechanics and continue to rely on his secondary pitches. For me, it isn’t an easy decision, and as such I have generally shied away from him in my mixed league drafts so far this season, even though the price to take a chance on him has been more than reasonable for a player with the upside that he arguably possesses.
There are many pros and cons that can be used in arguments for or against his chances of success this year. The Orioles, as we stated above, have a great offense that will score plenty of runs as well as the best defense in the league. On the flip side, the move to the the AL East from the AL Central is never considered a positive, as the entire division is stacked with potent offensive teams. His new home park, Camden Yards, is much less forgiving than Progressive Field and now there will be extra visits to Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and the Rogers Centre to boot.
The safest number to project this year for me is his strikeouts, and that remains the best reason to chase him late in your drafts this year. I don’t have a ton of faith that he can consistently harness his control, or that he can continue to reinvent himself as a “crafty” pitcher. Still, there is plenty of upside here for solid production at a bargain price. Just be prepared for the inevitable bouts of wildness that he will endure and the chance that the end of last year was in fact just a mirage. I personally would be more inclined to take a shot on him in an AL-only league than I would in a mixed league, as I will likely throw my darts at someone else in the end. Regardless of what I think, there is one other thing that I feel confident saying. That is that Ubaldo Jimenez will be a difference maker in leagues this year. I just can't say with any level of certainty what side of the ledger that difference will be on.