It's not often a pitcher like Ubaldo Jimenez is made available. It's even more rare for someone so talented to be offered up while there are still multiple years on his contract. Yet the Rockies shopped Jimenez before the July 31 trade deadline, a fact nearly everyone believed too good to be true. The question that made people wary, and is still being asked even now that Jimenez is in Cleveland, is "Why?"
Why was Jimenez, the greatest pitcher the Rockies have ever had, being traded for prospects?
The immediate suspicion was that Jimenez is injured, and the Rockies were trying to unload him before the time bomb exploded. That is reactionary, but it's also half-true. Jimenez likely is not hurt -- he passed his physical, and his medical records satisfied the Indians -- but had he stayed in Colorado for much longer, it's likely that he would have gotten hurt.
The history of the Rockies is proof. Since the team started play in 1993, no Rockies pitcher has thrown three 200-plus inning seasons in a row. Jimenez came the closest, but just missed by throwing 198 frames in 2008. Injuries, ineffectiveness, and problems adjusting to the environment have contributed to this, and in the team's nearly 19-year history, just 10 pitchers have thrown at least 500 career innings with the club. Put another way, just 10 pitchers have accumulated two-and-a-half season's worth of innings with the team.
Aaron Cook is the lone Rockies' pitcher to cross the 1,000 inning mark, but he has dealt with multiple shoulder issues in his career, and has just four seasons with at least 25 starts in his 10 years with the team. Jason Jennings, after 941 innings with the Rockies, saw his career derailed by his elbow. Pedro Astacio had just one successful year after leaving Colorado; he had shoulder trouble and underwent rotator-cuff surgery. John Thomson had a torn labrum that slowed his career.
Not all of the pitchers failed after leaving town. Jeff Francis is pitching well enough for Kansas City after escaping Colorado, and has had none of the left shoulder trouble that plagued him during his final three seasons in the mountains. Jamey Wright had some rotator-cuff issues, but is in Year 17 of his career despite two stints in Colorado. That leaves some hope for Jimenez, who is far more talented than any of these pitchers, and hasn't yet exhibited the injury trouble that many of them did while still in Colorado.
Pitching in Colorado wears on a pitcher physically more than pitching elsewhere. Former Baseball Prospectus writer Rany Jazayerli wrote this back when the Rockies moved to a four-man rotation (though not for long) in 2004:
But one thing the Rockies have figured out--a finding backed up by medical science--in their decade in the mountains: as a result of the thin air, the body recovers from physical exertion slower than it does at sea level
Mike Hampton threw eight shutout innings in his first start at Coors Field after signing with the Rockies, throwing only 98 pitches. The next day, he said, "I felt like I had been hit by a truck when I got up." The difficulty in recovering from each start was so debilitating that, before he was traded to the Braves, Hampton was planning to outfit his bedroom in Colorado with a pressure chamber so that his muscles might heal faster between starts.
Pitch in Colorado long enough, and it's nearly a guarantee you will develop arm problems. Jimenez has 851 innings pitched over six years, but 761 of them came in the last three-and-a-half. His velocity has dropped in 2011, and while it's hard to complain about a 3.98 ERA in the last calendar year, Jimenez had a nearly 331-inning stretch before that with a sub-3.00 ERA, despite the pro-hitter altitude. These facts have people worried, and it's easy to believe some of those people work in Colorado's front office.
The Rockies know their own history, the environment, and the trouble they have had, for one reason or another, keeping successful pitchers around. With Jimenez signed for just $4.2 million next year with a 2013 option for $5.75 million, coming off of a year where he was worth 7.2 rWAR, and with potentially troubling signs from his velocity and, if nothing else, a perceived drop in performance, the time to move him was now, while he could still bring back a significant package to bolster Colorado's future fortunes.
This past weekend has made Jimenez's contract extension seem geared more toward trading him than keeping him around. Given the performance of pitchers past, it's hard to fault the Rockies for being so eager to move Jimenez while, in their minds, they still could. By moving Jimenez rather than keeping him to themselves until it was too late, they may have saved one of baseball's most talented arms, and given themselves a chance to continue to compete in the process.