Just when many fans were ready to close the book on a quiet Orioles offseason, the Birds threw a curveball.
The O's made a blockbuster move Feb. 17, reportedly agreeing to a four-year, estimated $48 million deal with veteran right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, one of the most prominent pitchers on the free-agent market.
Jimenez, 30, is coming off a resurgent year for the Cleveland Indians, during which he went 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA during 32 starts and posted a career-best 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings. All told, Jimenez holds a career 3.92 ERA during 212 games (211 starts).
Jimenez came up through the Colorado Rockies' system, making his debut in 2006, and soon emerged as the club's ace. He had his best season in 2010, when he went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA, earning a spot on the National League All-Star team and finishing third in the NL Cy Young Award voting. That year, Jimenez threw the first no-hitter in Rockies history during a 4-0 win in Atlanta April 17. Jimenez fell on tough times after the Rockies traded him to the Indians in 2011, as he posted a 5.32 ERA for Cleveland from August 2011 until the end of the 2012 season before his bounce-back 2013 season.
The length and amount of the contract might come as a surprise to many Orioles fans, given that the O's have not signed a free-agent pitcher to a contract of more than three years during Peter Angelos' tenure as majority owner. Jimenez's reported four-year, $48 million contract would represent the largest contract the O's have ever given to a pitcher. It would also mark the Birds' first four-year deal with a free agent since they inked catcher Ramon Hernandez in 2005.
By signing Jimenez, the Orioles have surrendered their first-round pick (No. 17 overall) for the June amateur draft. The Birds had reportedly been hesitant to give up the pick, but the front office presumably decided that the immediate upgrade Jimenez could provide would counteract the loss of the pick. Because the Birds also traded away their supplemental-round pick as part of the Bud Norris deal last July, they won't make their first draft selection until the second round, the 55th overall pick.
Jimenez's deal is pending a physical, which can sometimes be a dicey proposition for the Orioles. But assuming it goes through, the O's might well have scored a coup during the waning days of the offseason.
On paper, Jimenez represents a significant upgrade to the Orioles' rotation. Jimenez will presumably join Chris Tillman atop the rotation, with Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Norris likely to claim the other three spots. Jimenez is a more proven pitcher than the variety of hurlers who were thought to be competing for the Birds' empty rotation spot this spring, such as Zach Britton, Steve Johnson, Brian Matusz and newly signed Korean right-hander Suk-min Yoon (whose contract the Orioles officially announced Feb. 17).
Jimenez seems to be a pitcher well suited for the Orioles. He's been a ground-ball pitcher throughout his career, posting a home run rate of 0.7 per nine innings. That includes a rate of 0.6 home runs per nine innings during his six years with the Rockies, which is no easy feat in Colorado's mile-high air. If Jimenez is able to continue inducing ground balls at a steady rate, he'll likely benefit from having the Orioles' stellar infield defense behind him. Additionally, Jimenez's career strikeout rate of 8.3 per nine innings indicates that he has swing-and-miss stuff.
Jimenez is not without his faults. His primary Achilles' heel during his big league career has been his control; he has walked an average of four batters per nine innings during his career and has twice led the league in wild pitches. Jimenez also has a complicated windup, which puts him at risk of getting his mechanics out of whack, sometimes for extended periods.
All in all, though, Jimenez could be just what the doctor ordered to address the Orioles' rotation holes. The Orioles spent all winter emphasizing their desire to add a veteran starting pitcher. And after months of silence, they've landed one, four days after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. And in doing so, they might have infused their previously frustrated fan base with a new jolt of excitement.