The 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).
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)