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Ubaldo Jimenez and the Orioles’ Burden


The Baltimore Orioles’ Kevin Gausman is a 23 year old top prospect who has turned 11 starts at the major league level this season into a 6-3 record and a 3.77 ERA. There have been a few minor bumps, but he has been everything that a team, specifically a contender, could want. But in a way, Kevin Gausman is also a burden.

The Orioles sat on their hands this off-season until the last moment, when they signed Nelson Cruz (1 year/$8 million) and Ubaldo Jimenez (4 years/$50 million).

Blessed with a young nucleus (Matt Weiters, Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Manny Machado) and a few exciting pitching prospects (Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey), the Orioles seemed as if they were on the verge of creating a stir in the AL East. With two wildcards, everyone (well, almost everyone) is compelled to go for it now and Cruz and Jimenez were the sign that the Orioles were all in.

While Cruz looked like an MVP candidate up until the middle of June (and even if his season ended right now, he’d still be well worth the money), Jimenez has strayed far from the consistency and success that he found in the second half last season.

Jul 20, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Kevin Gausman (39) throws a pitch against the Oakland Athletics during the first inning at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

In a way, Jimenez’s inconsistency is his consistency. This is a pitcher who has, throughout his career, been un-hittable for large stretches (remember when he went 13-1 with a 1.15 ERA to start the season with the Rockies in 2010?) before reverting back to a mortal and extremely hitable form. The mortal Ubaldo is the one that the Orioles have had to endure this season — a 3-8 pitcher with a 4.52 ERA who leads the league in walks.

The mortal Ubaldo, who has shown occasional glimpses of dominance, but whose best contribution to the 2014 Baltimore Orioles may wind up being this lengthy stint on the disabled list that has allowed the Orioles to let Gausman off the chain and into the big league rotation permanently — giving the Orioles an excuse to not be desperate for starting pitching at the deadline.

The trouble is, Jimenez’s time on the DL is now ending and the Orioles have too many starting pitchers. Thank you, Ubaldo Jimenez. Thank you, Kevin Gausman.

I like it when people call this kind of problem a good kind of problem to have — even managers. It’s a good kind of problem in comparison to having too few pitchers, but not in general. It is, however, a much better soundbite than, “We don’t know.”

Presently, the Orioles are in first place with a five game lead. They have the third best winning percentage in baseball. Re-read that. It does take some people by surprise. The Orioles have done that on the strength of their defense, their power and a pitching staff that has had a 2.84 ERA in the second half.

The knock against the Orioles starting pitching staff is that there are no true number one starters — Jimenez was supposed to be that guy (and maybe he still can be this season, again, he is capable of wild swings) and some people wanted the Orioles to trade Gausman and Bundy and Eddie Murray‘s statue last week to get Jon Lester for that role — but what does it matter when everyone on your staff pitches like a number two or a number three starter?

Jul 24, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Baltimore Orioles pitcher Wei-Yen Chen (16) delivers a pitch against the Kansas City Royals during the first inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Save for Jimenez, every starter on the Orioles’ staff has a sub-4.00 ERA. Wei Yin Chen has quietly won 12 games, Chris Tillman has recovered from a tough start to go 8-5 with a 3.78 ERA in a team leading 143 innings pitched and Bud Norris has won 9 games with a 3.68 ERA and a best-in-the rotation 1.26 WHIP.

Miguel Gonzalez, who is always the name that is floated for bullpen duty (and a name that was floated in trade rumors) is 6-6 with a 3.80 ERA. He’s given up 20 home runs in 113.2 innings and he has a 1.40 WHIP and a .270 batting average against. You can make a case that of the five starters that are active right now, his performance has been the worst of the bunch, but he has still pitched better than Jimenez.

It’s also worth noting that Gonzalez just had a 1.82 ERA in July, and rebounded from a rough start last week by holding the Blue Jays to 1 run over 6 innings last night.

The concept of a six man rotation has been floated, but doing that can disturb the entire rotation. Pitchers are creatures of habit. Do the Orioles really want to rock the boat and risk throwing Gausman, Norris, Chen or Tillman out of whack? That’s to say nothing of the adjustment that would then have to be made should the Orioles get to the postseason and the fact that they would still likely have to push a reliever down to AAA to carry an extra starter.

Sending one of these starters to the bullpen also complicates things. People speak about the bullpen as if it is some kind of limitless receptacle for misfit toys, but the Orioles have one of the best bullpens in the game and that’s due, in large part, to the careful way that Buck Showalter has managed it and the way that it has been constructed.

Jul 24, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter (26) greets third baseman Ryan Flaherty (3) after Flaherty scored a run against the Seattle Mariners during the third inning at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Brach and T.J. McFarland have become reliable multi-inning relievers, the newly acquired Andrew Miller is a lefty who can punish both lefties and righties equally, has a nearly sub 1.00 ERA, Tommy Hunter is a solid middle man and Brian Matusz is the lefty specialist. Zach Britton? He has quietly become one of the best closers in the league after assuming the role from Hunter early this season. Who gets bumped should Gonzalez get pushed to the bullpen? Which subtraction will hurt the least?

The easiest answer seems to be Brach or McFarland. Both have options and Gonzalez (who has some bullpen experience in the minors and a tendency to see his abysmal K/9 rate jump a bit when relegated to a relief role) would surely fill the long man role. Trouble is, Brach and McFarland have been two of Showalter’s most durable options.

O’Day, Britton and Miller are obviously untouchable, so what about Hunter and Matusz? Hunter has probably been the worst part of a tremendous bullpen, but he’s still been really good and while Matusz is one of four lefties in the pen right now, he’s been spectacular of late and neither he nor Hunter have minor league options and they won’t get through waivers.

As is the case with the rotation, there are no easy demotion candidates in the bullpen either, and the Orioles likely don’t want to harm their bench by cutting it down by one to accommodate an extra pitcher.

One could, I suppose, say that having a 25 man roster with little dead weight represents another “good problem to have”, but as the Orioles weigh their options (which should include sending Gonzalez to AAA to acclimate to a bullpen role until rosters expand in September), one imagines that they aren’t saying that behind closed doors as they try to figure out how to add Ubaldo Jimenez back to the club in as minimally destructive a way as possible.