April 16, 2014

The Ubaldo Problem

Ubaldo JimenezThe Indians currently have at least nine starting pitching candidates for their rotation, depending on how and whom you count.  There are the three guys pretty much guaranteed a solid rotation spot out of the gate, in Masterson, Jimenez and Myers.  There are the two at the back-end who have considerable chance of being bounced around as the season develops in McAllister and Kazmir.  And then there are at least four more guys who could be in the picture this year in some fashion, depending on need and injury, in Carrasco, Bauer, Matzusaka, and Kluber. 1

I’m not sure how exactly this compares to other teams or across other years, but to me, this feels like more starting pitching depth than we’ve had going into any season I can remember.  All nine of those guys have started games in the Major Leagues, so it’s not like I’m reaching deep into the depths of the farm system to come up with names.  We have quite a few arms to mix and match throughout the year, and that’s never a bad thing.  There will be injuries and sub-par performances that will have to be negotiated, and it’s always better to have more options than fewer.

On the other hand, all nine of those guys have some pretty serious question marks.  While Masterson can look amazing some days, he also has issues that make us question his role as a starter.  Myers is transitioning from the bullpen back to a rotation in the twilight of his career, which should at least raise an eyebrow or two.  Kazmir could be a great story, but he’s nothing resembling a sure thing.  Carrasco is coming off reconstructive elbow surgery that is known for causing control issues in the first year back.  Bauer is TINSTAAP.  Matzusaka throws 85 mph.  And so on.

More than any of these guys, though, I’m worried about Ubaldo Jimenez.  It’s not necessarily that I think he’s the worst option of the whole bunch—though if he pitches like he did last year that’s entirely possible.  Rather, I worry that the front office may give him a longer leash than he deserves because of his contract status or their own faith in their ability to fix his mechanical issues.  To be honest, they probably already have.

Stop for a second and consider this: Ubaldo was historically awful last year. He led all of baseball in losses with 17.  He had the third worst ERA (5.40) and the worst xFIP (4.98).  He had a career-low strikeout rate, a career-high walk-rate, and by far the worst groundball-rate of his otherwise worm-burning career (38.4% in 2012, down more than 10% from his career average).  Oh yeah, he was in the bottom 20 in HR-rate, allowing 1.27 dingers per nine innings pitched.  You could try to pitch worse than Ubaldo Jimenez did in 2012 and still not succeed.

And for all that awful, Ubaldo got his $5.75 million option picked up and was guaranteed the number 2 spot in a Major League rotation.  What’s the old definition of insanity?

Granted, I don’t think that the front office knew that the team would have quite the off-season it did—moving from bottom-dwellers to potential contenders.  And durable pitchers with Ubaldo’s upside—remember, he used to be something pretty special—usually cost much more than $5.75 million on the open market.  The front office really could figure out his mechanical flaws from last season.  Just look at how obvious it is (taken from a great baseball-prospectus piece written on his struggles last season).

 Ubaldo Posture

So yeah, it’s totally possible that Ubaldo gets off to a hot start, rediscovers his mechanics, and becomes the best pitcher in our rotation this season.  He certainly has the talent to do it.

But it’s also possible that he picks up right where he left off and stinks the joint up.  What if2 he ends April with an ERA north of 5.00?  What about May?  Will the front office wait with patience as they tinker with his delivery while all that aforementioned depth stays in Columbus?  Will they hope to recoup their $6 million investment by running him out every five days, hoping this will be the start that he figures it all out?

I’m really not sure.  The organization seems to have a mixed track record when it comes to recognizing sunk costs and moving forward.  On the one hand, they did the right thing last season when they DFA’d Derek Lowe, recognizing the reality of his June 1st expiration date.  On the other hand, their insistence over the past five years that Travis Hafner be miscast as an everyday DH despite the obvious evidence to the contrary might mean that have more to learn.

It is interesting that, because Ubaldo was traded during his last contract, the Indians no longer hold the option year on him for 2014 that Colorado did.  Jimenez has the right to void an $8 million club option with the Indians in favor of free agency; so in effect, the Indians lost an option year.  When we acquired him in the summer of 2011, nothing looked like a surer bet than Jimenez opting out of that club option and entering free agency.  Now, I’m not so sure he’d void the deal, if he even makes it that far.

Depending on how things go this season, it’s entirely possible that Jimenez won’t have to wait until winter to get on the open market.  If he pitches anything like he did last season, he could find himself looking for work as early as May.  If he can’t solve his obvious problems and learn how to be an effective pitcher with a less-than-stellar fastball, the front office should waste no time in cutting him loose, and recognizing the sunk cost.

I sure hope it doesn’t come to that. But I also hope the front office has already had this discussion.  For the first time in years, they have options galore for the rotation.  None of them is perfect.  But none of them should be safe either.

(AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

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Footnotes:

  1. I’m not counting David Huff or Josh Tomlin for obvious reasons, but I guess in a sense they’re part of this depth too. []
  2. am I still allowed to start sentences this way? []

  • nj0

    Another point about our pitching staff – there’s been a few articles out recently about catcher’s ability to frame pitches. Apparently both Santana and Marson appear to be horrible at it. Not sure how that translates to runs, but forcing your pitchers to pitch from behind more often than they should have to cannot be a good thing.

  • mgbode

    fangraphs had a couple articles on it that I read. it seemed inconclusive though. basically, some of our SPs are among the worst at getting borderline calls in their favor (w/ either Santana or Marson).

    lots of factors are involved though. I can see how Santana’s constant movement does not help matters though (he never seems to sit still behind the plate).

  • Harv 21

    wait, Jon, you’re suggesting Antonetti might simply dump him early and toss any potential return from the sunk cost of this year’s guaranteed salary? I can’t compare that to Lowe, where Tribe was only on the line for $5m for entire season and he wasn’t DFAd until August. Antonetti’s history is he just won’t spit his hairballs.

    Maybe he’d trade him for a single-A outfielder to the next team who believes he’s worth trying to fix for a half-season playoff run. But by then 3 pitching coaches failed to fix him in 2 years. Most likely we’re stuck for Episode 3 of “Ubaldo: Workin’ Hard.”

  • nj0

    And Masterson throws a lot down in the zone which, apparently, are harder for umps to call correctly.

  • WFNYJon

    I’m suggesting that if it’s obvious Ubaldo is in the same mode as he was last season, the Antonetti *should* cut bait sooner rather than later.

    But I don’t think he will either, at least not before August. And like I said, I hope none of this is necessary and he reinvents himself. But I’m skeptical.

  • mgbode

    Masterson is incredibly complex as his throwing motion itself lends to making it difficult on umpires (and hopefully hitters again).

  • mgbode

    Here’s a hypothetical:

    If we don’t pickup the $5.75mil option on Ubaldo, then does Lohse potentially sign a 1year $6mil deal with us so that he can pursue a bigger, longer contract next offseason? And, would that have been worth forfeiting a 4th round selection?

  • mgbode

    also, I think the better counter-example is Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez. The FO kept putting him back on the mound and clicking on the “accept” button for his options.

  • JK

    If Kazmir warms up to Kashmir I’m all about it

  • JK

    If Kazmir warms up to Kashmir I’m all about it

  • Harv 21

    I was responding to ” …it’s entirely possible that Jimenez won’t have to wait until winter to get on the open market.” But I see now you didn’t say that it’s entirely possible in May, when they’d eat $5M. I agree it’s entirely possible in August when they’d eat $2M, hope someone signs him to defray 10% of that on a pro rated minimum vet salary, and consider it the cost of taking a look at someone else’s refuse or one of their own kids.

  • Harv 21

    I was responding to ” …it’s entirely possible that Jimenez won’t have to wait until winter to get on the open market.” But I see now you didn’t say that it’s entirely possible in May, when they’d eat $5M. I agree it’s entirely possible in August when they’d eat $2M, hope someone signs him to defray 10% of that on a pro rated minimum vet salary, and consider it the cost of taking a look at someone else’s refuse or one of their own kids.

  • WFNYJon

    I still think Lohse ends up getting signficantly more than 1yr/$6 million. But there is NO WAY he signs that deal early in the off-season after the Indians decline an option on Ubaldo.

    I would bet Lohse ends up signing for about 2 yrs/$20 million, but wouldn’t be surprised at one year for $10.

    (And to think: the Cardinals offered him a one-year $13 million qualifying offer that he turned down. This CBA is so freaking awful.)

  • WFNYJon

    I still think Lohse ends up getting signficantly more than 1yr/$6 million. But there is NO WAY he signs that deal early in the off-season after the Indians decline an option on Ubaldo.

    I would bet Lohse ends up signing for about 2 yrs/$20 million, but wouldn’t be surprised at one year for $10.

    (And to think: the Cardinals offered him a one-year $13 million qualifying offer that he turned down. This CBA is so freaking awful.)

  • mgbode

    I’m not saying early. I’m saying at the end of February perhaps.

    and, taking it further, would we be willing to give him that 1yr $10mil deal if we didn’t have Ubaldo’s?

  • mgbode

    I’m not saying early. I’m saying at the end of February perhaps.

    and, taking it further, would we be willing to give him that 1yr $10mil deal if we didn’t have Ubaldo’s?

  • WFNYJon

    Well sure, but that’s a whole lot of Monday Morning QB’ing.

    I don’t think ANYONE anticipated the market for Lohse would be so terrible. If Lohse did, he obviously would’ve accepted the qualifying offer. I assume every team just thought someone else would pony up, and when nobody did, the market dried up overnight.

    It would’ve been a really enormous risk to not pick Ubaldo’s option with the specific goal of signing Lohse to a one year $10 million deal six months later. You’d have needed a crystal ball to make that call.

    But yeah, hindsight being what it is, I’d do it.

  • Bourn, Michael Bourn

    Hard to blame the tribe for the Hafner situation. What would you have done? DFA him and eat his contract? Trade him? Good luck finding a partner.

    Our supposed SP depth is not 9 deep, as you mention, it is 7 deep. Matsuzaka is throwing in the 80′s; there is no reason to expect him to get outs at the major league level throwing like that. Also, I am not personally a fan of Kluber. Yeah he throws up to 94, but it is one of the straightest fastballs I’ve ever seen. I don’t think he has what it takes either. I could picture Salazar starting off in Columbus and getting a callup in August for a spot start or something.

  • Allen P

    I wonder if the Hafter example is relatable, for the following reasons:
    1. Hafner’s contract was much richer (~14M/year?)
    2. He was a fan favorite on a team not exactly overflowing in fan favorites that people came to watch

  • mgbode

    yes, it was a purely hindsight hypothetical.

  • Bourn, Michael Bourn

    Don’t think Lohse is looking at a 1 year 6 million even at this point. However, If we didn’t sign Ubaldo or Myers, we could’ve potentially had him for that 2 year $20 million. And to think, Pittsburgh tried to sign Liriano to a 2 year $15 million contract!

  • WFNYJon

    Nah, they shouldn’t have cut Hafner. They should have made him a platoon DH against RHP only. Keep him to 3 or at most 4 days a week. But that contract got in their head: “Players making $14 million HAVE to play every day.” it’s not a good way to think, but I see how it happens. And then he ends up getting hurt every year from over-use.

    And on the SP depth, like I wrote, it depends on how and whom you count. I keep hearing Francona mention Kluber’s name in every stinking interview about the rotation, so he stays in for me, if only because Francona’s personal fandom matters more than yours in regards to the rotation.

    I can see leaving Dice-K out, but like you say, Salazar *could* be an option as early as this season. The scouts LOVE him. And David Huff could be considered SP depth too, though I’m considering him bullpen fodder. He has started and once upon a time was thought of fondly.

    The point isn’t the exact number if SP options. It’s that there’s more depth with either (1) MLB experience; or (2) a bright enough future; than we’ve had in some time. And for me, that’s enough of a reason not to stick with a pitcher who may not be very good for the bulk of the season.

  • REEPJP

    I don’t really do any of the SABR or Fangraphs stuff, but is there a way to look a past player and see if Sandy was any good at framing? If he was, and assuming some minion in the organization read the fangraphs article about Carlos/Marson and their lacking in this area, is this something Sandy could help them get better at?

  • nj0

    I don’t think you could get that info for past players. I believe it relies on the pitch FX data which basically tracks pitches and shows if they’re actually strikes/balls based on an objective system rather what the ump thinks. I believe that data only goes back to 2006 or so.

    That said, imo Sandy could and should help them.

    Should add, pitch FX uses special cameras to track pitches, not regular tv cameras. So it’s not like you could just look at old tape.

  • Bourn, Michael Bourn

    I understand where you’re coming from, but just because a guy has pitched, or even had success, in the show doesn’t mean they are a good option today. We could theoretically have signed 5 more Matsuzaka’s for cheap, but I don’t think that means we have good SP depth. We undoubtedly have more depth than last year, but that was a historically bad rotation.

    Agree to disagree on Kluber: his WHIP over the last three years in AAA is about 1.45. I think at best he tops out as a AAAA type guy. I can see why his 94 mph fastball is interesting, but I just don’t see it.

    Hopefully, this is a moot point as Carrasco and Bauer should be able to make all of the starts that our top 5 lose out on due to injury. If we are really relying on Kluber and Dice K, I think we’re in for a LONG, LONG season.

  • Steve

    ” But that contract got in their head: ‘Players making $14 million HAVE to play every day.’”

    There’s no evidence of this. It is likely they determined that Hafner was the best option they had, and it was near impossible to predict when the injury would sideline him, even if they knew it would happen eventually.

  • WFNYJon

    I would suggest that giving him consistent starts at DH against LHP for the last three years counts as evidence.

    Look at his OPS platoon splits since 2010.

    2010: LHP .706; RHP .863
    2011: LHP .638 (!); RHP .886
    2012: LHP .748; RHP .798

    You’re telling me you can’t get a guy to DH against LHP who can OPS above .700? Even Shelley Duncan–flawed as he is–OPSes above .750 against LHP.

    I liked Hafner too, but he was miscast as an everyday player these last three years. Not only were the platoon splits an issue, but there is some reason to believe that playing everyday created additional injury-problems (chronic shoulder issues, etc.)

  • Kildawg

    Tomlin is counted as 2014 depth due to Tommy John surgery. I see the rationale of picking up the option ($5.75mil) is that Myers cost $7mil this year, Carrasco is recovering from Tommy John, and Bauer and Kluber could use more seasoning in AAA. Kazmir could be the diamond in the rough, comeback candidate and Huff looks like a bullpen arm in long relief, with an occasional spot start. However, I would have to say that Jimenez is on a short leash because of our depth in SP (which teams never really can have enough of apparently).

  • Steve

    Sure, a platoon partner would have been ideal. But using two guys on the DH spot doesn’t leave a lot of room elsewhere on the roster.

    Duncan played LF because the alternatives were Damon, Carrera, Cunningham, etc. Would you rather have any of those guys bat against LHP instead of Hafner?

    And when it comes to how frequently he played affecting his health, the team has a lot more information that you or I do. If they had good information that resting him two or three times a week would keep him healthier, don’t you think they would have done that? The way he was handled suggests that this was something that flared up quickly and could happen even with consistent rest.

  • woofersus

    According to baseball-reference.com Shelley Duncan’s corresponding numbers from last year were .695/.658 and Hafner was better in BOTH batting average and on base percentage even against lefties.

    Furthermore, Hafner only logged ONE more plate appearance than Duncan in 2012, (along with 13 FEWER AB’s, because Hafner drew 12 more walks) so it’s not like Duncan was riding the pine watching Hafner not hit well against lefties. On top of that, Hafner’s starts against Righties vs Lefties were a fairly lopsided
    51/15, because they DID frequently sit him down against lefties.

    You may forget how awful the entire team was against lefties last year. They were giving regular at-bats to guys like Cunningham, (.612 OPS against LHP) Damon, (.557 OPS against LHP) Kotchman, (.574 OPS against LHP) and Hannahan. (.481 OPS against LHP along with a .167 BA – OUCH!) Evan Jason Kipnis had a dismal .581 OPS against LHP. Lou Marson was actually better against lefties, but that still only amounted to an OPS of .641. Freaking Matt LaPorta had a better OPS against lefties than all those guys – except the miscast everyday player Travis Hafner.