Friday, November 8, 2013

Should The Yanks Take The Plunge On Ubaldo Jimenez?

(Courtesy of the AP)

(Originally published at IIATMS/TYA)

The Yankees tacked another top free agent name to their ever-expanding target list this week when George King name dropped righty pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez in an article for The Post.  You might remember Jimenez as a potential trade target for the Yankees a few years ago when he was in Colorado, a trade the Yankees ended up not pulling the trigger on.  Jimenez landed in Cleveland, where things really unraveled for him in 2012 in his first full season in the AL (5.40/5.06/4.98 in 176.2 IP).  He rebounded in 2013, posting a 3.30/3.43/3.63 slash line in 32 starts and a 1.82/2.17/2.99 line after the All Star break.  On the strength of that 2nd half, Jimenez is looking to land his first big contract after declining his option for 2014.  The Yankees need starting pitching, but Jimenez is such a jumble of inconsistencies that he might scare them off.

Jimenez is on the right side of 30 right now at age 29, but that will change in a few months.  He's still in his physical prime and hasn't been much of an injury concern to date.  Since becoming a full-time part of a rotation in 2008, Jimenez has never made fewer than 31 starts in a season and has only pitched fewer than 180 innings once, his dud of a season in 2012.  He's a workhorse and his big 6'5" frame has shown no signs of breaking down.

He's also got some damn good stuff, legitimate swing-and-miss stuff.  He doesn't throw his fastball as hard as he used to, but he can still work in the low 90s with his 4-seamer and 2-seamer and when he's throwing those for strikes to set up his offspeed pitches he can be really tough to handle.  Jimenez's primary out pitch is his slider, which he threw a career high 22.8% of the time in 2013.  When he's commanding that pitch like he was in the 2nd half of this season, he can be borderline unhittable.  His mid-80s changeup isn't bad either.  It registers as an above-average pitch according to PITCHf/x even working off his diminished fastball velocity.  For what it's worth, Jimenez posted new career highs in strikeout rates in 2013 (25.0% K rate, 9.56 K/9).

It's that diminished fastball velocity that raises some concerns though.  His 4-seamer averaged 92.1 MPH in 2012, the 4th straight year of decreased velocity from the 96.0 it averaged in '09.  That downward trend in velocity could start to negatively impact the effectiveness of Jimenez's offspeed stuff, and even though there haven't been any reported arm issues, decreased velocity at age 29 doesn't exactly give reason to feel confident that they won't start creeping up.

Command is also a huge problem for Jimenez.  He's had sub-10% BB rates only twice in his career and he walked 95 batters in 2012 when he was at his worst.  Even this past season he wasn't a model of command consistency, walking 80 batters in 182.2 IP (3.94 BB/9).  Jimenez is a lanky guy and his mechanics have never been smooth.  He gets into problems with repeating his delivery and that inability to smooth it out and sharpen his mechanics makes him a bit of a wild card from start to start, not unlike another former hard-throwing right-hander who struggled mightily with his command after signing a big money free agent deal a handful of years back.

So who is the true Ubaldo Jimenez?  The glorified batting practice pitcher who walked the yard and gave up a bunch of home runs in 2012?  The guy who pitched to a 4.56 ERA and walked almost 5 batters per 9 innings in the 1st half of 2013?  Or the guy with pretty good command and an untouchable slider who was one of the best pitchers in the AL after the ASB?  That's the mystery and that's what the Yankees will have to evaluate when deciding how hard they want to push for him.  There are implications in his pitch usage trends that he's transitioning to more of a balanced, smart pitching approach now that he's not throwing smoke.  But there are also stronger implications from his history that he's the pitching equivalent of a magic 8-ball.  Is that worth giving out $12-15 mil for 3-4 years and coughing up New York's 1st round pick in the draft?  I'd lean towards the "no" side of the fence on that, but that's just me.

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