As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s No. 2 starter: Ubaldo Jimenez.
Background: The Colorado Rockies signed Jimenez as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2001, when he was just 17. He landed on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list in both 2005 and 2007. He experienced his first full MLB season in 2008 and was a Cy Young contender in 2010, when he went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA. The Indians traded Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Joe Gardner, and Matt McBride for Jimenez in July.
Last year: Jimenez, now 28, had a rough time following up on his breakout 2010 campaign, going 10-13 with a 4.68 ERA, including a 4-4 record and a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts with the Indians. Yet his strikeout and walk rates were right in line with his norms; other than a jump in his home runs allowed, the biggest factors in his season-long slump were a higher BABIP and a lower strand rate. There’s a good deal of disagreement about how much of Jimenez’ struggles were due to luck, as reflected in the wide range of estimations of his 2011 value—FanGraphs‘ FIP-based model put him at 3.5 wins above replacement, while Baseball-Reference actually had him below replacement level (-0.4 WAR).
Key factor: Jimenez’ relationship to his DIPS stats. We’re talking about a pitcher who saw his ERA jump nearly two full runs last year, yet looking at his xFIP (3.59 in 2009, 3.60 in 2010, 3.71 in 2011) and SIERA (3.77 in 2009, 3.68 in 2010, 3.74 in 2011) his peripheral numbers have been incredibly consistent. There is reason to see Jimenez’ struggles as more than just a complete reversal of luck—depending on what source you use, his average fastball velocity dipped about 2 mph last year, which would lead to a higher BABIP and HR/FB rate—but that doesn’t mean his true-talent level isn’t somewhere in the middle.
2012 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs:
This spread is interesting, if not particularly diverse. Everyone expects Jimenez to underperform his DIPS stats again in 2012, but the general consensus is that his peripherals will improve. This is actually one of the few circumstances in which I’d call the mean projection too optimistic—a 3.67 ERA is definitely a reasonable projection for Jimenez, but I’d take the over on that pretty easily.
Also interesting is the spread of Jimenez’ win-loss projections—particularly, ZIPS’ bullish prediction. Looking at James’ projection, apparently four fewer points of ERA in five more innings is enough to go from 11-10 to 15-9.
Best-case scenario: It’s 2010 all over again. Jimenez gets his velocity back up and it’s off to the races from there. His work with the Indians’ coaching staff helps him bring his walks under control and get his groundball rate up, while his improved fastball will allow him to induce weaker contact. His fantastic season earns him MVP and Cy Young votes, and no one in Cleveland bemoans the losses of Pomeranz and White.
Worst-case scenario: Last year wasn’t a fluke. Jimenez struggles to get his velocity back to where it once was and his game falls apart from there. His strikeout rate falls and he continues to struggle with a high BABIP and HR/FB rate, to the point where the Indians would probably be better off throwing David Huff in his place. Adding insult to injury, Pomeranz or White outpitches Jimenez, making the trade for him look like a huge mistake.
Most likely scenario: Jimenez will be better than he looked last year, but even if a large part of his struggles in 2011 were bad luck he’ll probably underperform his context-neutral stats. He’ll be a quality innings eater who prevents runs at about an average rate (say, a 3.80 ERA) and shows occasional flashes of dominance, but there will be at least a couple games this year when you’ll think Joe Borowski is starting for the Tribe.