I went with my wife to see the Indians play the Tigers on Labor Day 2011. The Tigers were in the midst of pulling away from the pack, but at the time the lead was only six games or so and it seemed like this was the pivotal series of the race. Ubaldo Jimenez was pitching against Doug Fister, and for the first three innings he was Sandy Koufax. Nine up, nine down, seven strikeouts, and some of the best hitters on the planet were completely overmatched. We entered the fourth inning feeling like we could be watching a performance we would remember for the rest of our lives.
With one out in the fourth, Delmon Young singled. Miguel Cabrera got a break on a borderline check swing on a 2-2 pitch, then walked, then Victor Martinez came up and drove the first pitch into the right field seats. Ubaldo settled down after that, pitching three more hitless innings, but a ten-pitch sequence overshadowed a hundred or so pitches of utter brilliance, and he took the loss.
This is Ubaldo Jimenez. You can blame his mechanics, his attitude, his health, or his intelligence, all of which have been questioned over the past year. The bottom line is that we have seen more than a year of this maddening inconsistency and nothing to indicate that this year will be any different. There is a possibility that a new manager and pitching coach will get his mechanics straightened out or fix whatever is wrong in his head, but how often does that actually happen?
What surprises me is that, through all the talk of who the Tribe should trade in order to build a contender for 2013, Ubaldo’s name never comes up. To review: he’s scheduled to make almost $6 million dollars, which will probably make him one of the five highest paid players on the team, depending on how the arbitration cases come out. By most rational measurements, he was the worst pitcher in the American League last year, at least among those who pitched more than 150 innings. And after this season he will be a free agent.
In other words, Jimenez has a contract situation identical to Shin-Soo Choo, whom we all viewed as a lock to be traded. The biggest difference is that Choo would have been likely to be a major asset to the team, while Jimenez is likely to boost antacid sales at the ballpark. Even if he figures it out and performs at a level approximating his peak years, he is only driving up his asking price and making it impossible to resign him. So why haven’t we seen his name in any trade rumors? He certainly makes more sense to trade than Asdrubal Cabrera, who has two years left on a below-market deal.
I understand that trading Jimenez now would be a classic case of selling low, which usually is a bad idea. But there are two reasons why this case is an exception to that rule. First is the principle of addition by subtraction. The $6 million that Jimenez will make this year represents a significant burden for the payroll budget. If the Indians Jimenez for a couple of outfield prospects with some upside, they can use the savings to get another starter.
For example, Brett Myers just signed for seven million. Myers is a journeyman at this stage of his career, but if I were a betting man I would wager he will outperform Jimenez in 2013, or at least be more consistent. If a trade of Jimenez could yield a decent prospect and he could be replaced with another Myers-like player, would the Indians be better or worse in 2013? If they use the savings elsewhere, one could make a case that Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer would perform about as well as Jimenez as a fraction of the cost. It would be frightening to go into a season with youngsters like Carrasco, Kluber, and McAllister all in the rotation, but how much more stressful could it be than one of Ubaldo’s 45-pitch innings that we have all come to know and love?
Second, I would note that Francisco Liriano almost signed a two-year, $14 million contract with Pittsburgh. Liriano’s performance over the past year or so has been almost as inconsistent as Jimenez’, with the added issue that he cannot stay healthy. Indeed, a new arm injury may have scuttled the entire deal, which probably has the Pirates’ front office breathing a sigh of relief. What this tells me is that any pitcher perceived to have some degree of talent, which Jimenez certainly does, has some value, either financially or in trade. If the Indians were to call and the Diamondbacks and offer Jimenez for Jason Kubel or call the Nationals and offer Jimenez for Mike Morse, would the other teams hang up? Would they be a better team if either of those trades were made?
The optimist in me still harbors the hope that we will see the 2010 Jimenez. Combine that with the 2011 Justin Masterson and the Indians have a rotation that can stand up with the Tigers and the White Sox. But if I go far enough into dreamland I can also see myself playing centerfield for the Indians. There comes a point when you have to face reality, and reality is that a repeat of 2012 is more likely than a repeat of 2010 for Jimenez, and the path to contention is far tougher with a 9-17 pitcher at the front of your rotation.