Ubaldo signing shows O's mean business
After slow winter, Baltimore committed to winning now after deal for righty
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Maybe they were made and meant for each other, this Draft-pick-pestered pitcher and this franchise frustrated by what had been a fruitless starting pitching pursuit.
They met, officially, at an Ed Smith Stadium news conference Thursday, when executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette draped Ubaldo Jimenez in Orioles orange and welcomed him to the top of the rotation. And thus, with new ink on the contracts for "The Big U" and, earlier in the week, Suk-min Yoon, the thaw finally arrived for the O's, much like the 40-degree temps melting the snow and ice back in Baltimore.
"It took a lot of patience by the fans and a lot of patience by us to add veteran starting pitchers," Duquette said. "Every starting pitcher that we were in on, there were four or five other clubs also in on that pitcher, actively trying to sign him with good offers."
Fans took notice, that's for sure. And whether they'd admit it or not, the players also had to feel a bit of uncertainty as to whether enough had been done this winter to improve the bottom line. That's why manager Buck Showalter was so encouraged with what he saw in Thursday's workout, which he said was one of the best the Orioles have had since he's been here.
"When you've been in locker rooms for a long time, you sort of know what you're talking about," Showalter said. "You walk through a locker room any time during the season, you know when you've got it going on. It's just a feeling."
So now it's good feelings for a club surprisingly stagnant in the winter months.
Duquette made the point that if Jimenez, who got four years and $50 million, and Yoon, who got three years and $5.75 million, had been signed in November to these same deals, the O's would have been applauded for aggressively addressing a starting staff that was among the worst in the league last season. And that's probably true.
But perception is reality, and the reality is that the Orioles slogged through a winter in which efforts to maximize their window of contention -- a window made potentially problematic by the looming free-agent eligibility of J.J. Hardy and Nick Markakis at season's end, and Chris Davis and Matt Wieters at the end of 2015 -- were minimal.
In Jimenez, in particular, Baltimore took the best of what was left around, because, when compared to Ervin Santana, he does have better peak performance in his rearview mirror and none of the pesky questions about his elbow condition.
Of course, the O's paid handsomely for the privilege, especially in surrendering the No. 17 overall Draft selection (and losing the accompanying pool money) and breaking an organizational code of conduct in giving a pitcher a four-year guarantee. Sure, it's a steal if Ubaldo can sustain anything resembling his second half of 2013, when his 1.82 ERA was better than that of any starter not named Clayton Kershaw ... but can he?
"I think it's very sustainable for him," said Mickey Callaway, the Indians' pitching coach and the man credited with navigating U's turn. "As long as he takes that approach of, 'I'm going to throw the ball over the plate.'"
Sounds simple. Isn't simple.
Not for a guy with a complicated tomahawk-chop delivery that proves difficult to repeat if a physical imperfection presents itself. In 2012, it was a right ankle injury, and Jimenez was all but unwatchable for much of that season, posting a 5.40 ERA that was the third-highest among qualifiers.
The Orioles will harp on the fact that a lack of arm issues over the years has allowed Jimenez to make at least 31 starts in each of the last six seasons. But the quality of those starts has varied between two extremes.
If we're simplistic about Jimenez's career, we can say he's had two astounding half-seasons (in 2010 and '13) and the rest is, well, not exactly worth $50 million.
"All that time in between the first half of 2010 and second half of 2013, for whatever reason, injuries or a sore groin, he became a different guy, as far as how hard he was throwing," Callaway said. "He thought he had to adjust, and he stopped throwing the ball over the plate because he wasn't throwing 100 [mph] anymore. He thought he had to try to be more like Greg Maddux, but he's not that type of pitcher."
None of us are smart enough to know what type of pitcher Jimenez will be for the next four years, and the Indians -- even with a rotation need -- showed no interest in retaining him on anything other than a one-year deal, which is telling of either their finances or their faith.
For the O's, however, there is tremendous import placed upon the now, because opportunities to field a championship-caliber club in the American League East are not to be taken for granted. And while they feel confident that Kevin Gausman can help them this season and Dylan Bundy can make an impact sometime in the second half, the starting status quo made them uncomfortable.
The Orioles understand there could be nights, in a division loaded with patient lineups, that Jimenez reaches 100 pitches in the fourth inning (only three qualifiers used more pitches per inning than Jimenez last season), and they know the "robbing Peter to pay Paul" problem that could arise if they try to alter his mechanics to get him quicker to the plate and better control the running game.
For now, they're going to let Ubaldo be Ubaldo and hope the lesson of last year sticks and that osmosis sets in once he's settled into an organization that places heavy emphasis on all facets of the defensive effort.
Jimenez feels confident that new pitching coach Dave Wallace (who helped develop Ubaldo's idol, Pedro Martinez) can help him maintain the mindset that Callaway instilled last summer.
"I have to command the strike zone, make them swing the bat," Jimenez said. "Not getting myself out of the game throwing balls and fighting behind in the count. That's something I was able to do in the second half last season, and I'm looking forward to doing it once the season starts."
Suddenly, the O's have a lot more to look forward to. In Jimenez and Yoon, a back-of-the-rotation type who could potentially slide into the bullpen, they don't have sure things, but they do have improved depth in a division that requires it. Furthermore, Manny Machado's progress in his return from knee surgery has been perhaps the most encouraging element of these early days of camp. All signs point to him being back in the lineup in April, if not Opening Day.
"My biggest goal with him this year is not to have any setbacks," Showalter said. "I don't want to hear about him being ahead or behind schedule. When he's there, he's there, and he's worth waiting on to be right. I don't want him to have any doubt in his mind that he's ready."
What the Orioles have done this week is remove a good deal of the doubt about their readiness to contend this season. But the prevailing wisdom about forking over Draft picks is that once you've given up a first-rounder, you might as well surrender a second if there's still talent to be had, and it's no secret the O's could benefit from a DH bat such as Nelson Cruz or Kendrys Morales.
So stay tuned. The Orioles' thaw might not be complete.