Ubaldo Jimenez was a divisive free agent until the Orioles signed him to a four-year, $48 million deal on Monday. Now, he's a divisive Oriole: it's not clear just how good, if at all, Jimenez will be for the next four years, not with his recent up-and-down history. What is clear, though, is that the Orioles needed to take a risk on someone like Jimenez, with his upside, in the present, because their rotation just wasn't good enough to compete in the American League East otherwise.
The Orioles' top starter pre-Jimenez was Chris Tillman. While Tillman has been a quality pitcher since 2012, when he finally broke out in the majors, he's not the kind of arm that should be leading a rotation. He can likely throw 200 innings again in 2014, but he gives up a few too many homers to believe he's as good as his ERA has suggested at this early point in his career. While Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) doesn't always tell the whole story (and is by no means a crutch to lean on), it's at least plausible that Tillman's true value lies somewhere between his 3.71 ERA and 4.42 FIP from 2013.
There's potential to be a solid number two starter in Tillman, but he could just as easily be a three. Again, Tillman was the best starter the Orioles had in the majors prior to signing Ubaldo -- that by itself should explain why Jimenez was necessary. Digging deeper only adds to that thought.
Wei-Yin Chen has been solid in his first two MLB campaigns, posting a 104 ERA+ over 55 starts. He's a mid-rotation arm, though, and has yet to toss 200 frames in a season -- he came close with 192 innings in his rookie season, but injury limited him to 23 starts and 137 innings in 2013. Following Chen is Miguel Gonzalez, another mid-rotation arm who has yet to wow with his workload but has produced quality results on the ERA side. Combining these two with Tillman makes a strong 2-3-4 in Baltimore's rotation, but they still lacked someone capable of stepping into that number one starter role, and the back-end remains problematic.
You can survive without a convincing number one starter if the rest of your rotation is good enough, and it's that problematic back-end that kept the Orioles from that option. Bud Norris is currently listed in the Orioles' depth chart, and he's been everything a team in Baltimore's situation can't afford to have at the back of their rotation.Since becoming a full-time starter in 2010 at the age of 25, Norris has posted a below-average 91 ERA+ and averaged 171 innings per season. Almost all of that came in the National League, where he rarely had to face designated hitters, and in a park that, while not necessarily forgiving to pitchers, went easier on them than his current Camden digs: he's not going to make the bullpen's life any easier without that forgiving context behind him.
Norris missed bats in his 50 innings of work with the O's, but his ERA was 4.80, his walks climbed to worrisome 2010 levels, and he saw both his home run and hit rates rise. It's a small sample, but this also wasn't unexpected: Camden Yards is a devastating park for pitchers, and Norris isn't a good enough pitcher to overcome that. If he survives the season in the rotation, it's probably not a good sign for Baltimore's other options.
One of those other options is Korean hurler Suk-min Yoon, a right-hander who is currently slotted for the Baltimore bullpen. It's an open question whether he'll be able to start in the majors as he did in Korea, as the quality of competition is higher stateside, and Yoon also is dealing with "deteriorating stuff" according to Baseball America's Ben Badler. If his throwing shoulder fully recovers from a previous injury, Yoon might have a shot at starting, but if not, he's not going to help Baltimore's rotation one bit over the life of his deal.
The question mark that is the fifth spot helped lead to Ubaldo. As stated, he could revert to his 2012 form -- 5.40 ERA, just 1.5 times more strikeouts than walks, far too many homers for someone with home games in a pitcher's park, mechanics all askew -- and be a drag on Baltimore's rotation and playoff chances. There is also the potential that the tinkering performed by Jimenez and the Indians' coaching staff sticks, though, and he maintains the repeatable mechanics and success stemming from them for much of the life of his new contract. The chance that this occurs was enough for the Orioles.
They also haven't pinned their hopes entirely on Ubaldo's success or failure. In 2014, that might be the case, considering the rotation we've just covered. In the near-future, though, the Orioles will be adding serious pitching prospects like Kevin Gausman, Eduardo Rodriguez, and, one of the game's most talented young arms, Dylan Bundy to the rotation mix. If Ubaldo can be even a mid-rotation arm during the time that this trio is in the majors (assuming, of course, they develop along the expected path), the Orioles will go from their current solid-but-uninspiring starting five to one of the better rotations in not just the AL East, but the entire American League. That's down the road, but with more and more quality pitchers signing extensions and skipping free agency altogether, the Orioles dove into the market now for an arm they believe in.
The Jimenez move has its potential pitfalls, but the Orioles needed to add upside to a rotation lacking in it. It gives Baltimore a better shot in 2014, and could pay dividends down the road when their exciting young arms finally make it to the show to stay. The risk is very real, but the Orioles are, at least on paper, a better team than they were before signing Jimenez, and accomplished as much without spending like crazy.