I remember exactly where I was when Ubaldo Jimenez was traded to the Indians on July 30, 2011. I was playing golf with my father at Arrowhead Golf Course, a course south of Denver known for its incredible scenery. I didn’t have a smartphone at the time, but I had text alerts for any Rockies’ news. While Jimenez was surrounded with trade rumors that month, Dan O’Dowd was quoted as saying that a trade would require a return that mimicked the Hershel Walker trade of 1989, so I was incredibly surprised when he was dealt. There are few moments in my life that I remember as clearly as the memory of looking up at the beautiful red rocks of Arrowhead and thinking about just how momentous this trade was to my beloved Rockies and what it meant for the future.
The Rockies acquired a prospect package of Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Matt McBride, and Joe Gardner for Jimenez. It’s tough to judge a trade for prospects until a few years have gone by, as it’s difficult to accurately predict prospect performance before they’ve had significant time in the Majors. Now, more than three years after the trade, it’s fair to make assertions about the overall success of the trade. I’m going to start by looking at what Cleveland got in the blockbuster.
Ubaldo Jimenez was called up for a cup of tea at the major league level in 2006, but he had his rookie season in 2007, when the Rockies called him up for the stretch run as a 23-year-old. He made 15 starts in the regular season, and posted a respectable 112 ERA+, which signifies that he was 12 percent better than league average at run prevention when adjusted to park factors. He also had an impressive showing during the playoffs, posting a 2.25 ERA in three starts. In 2008 and 2009, he established himself as a reliable and quality starter for the Rockies, tossing 416.2 innings with a 126 ERA+, and he was named the Opening Day starter in 2010, which would turn out to be his breakout season. Jimenez tossed the first no-hitter in Rockies history on April 19 and when he recorded the final out, I jumped up in the air and twisted my ankle on the landing, which made me sympathize with basketball players to a higher degree. He built off the momentum of his no-no and had an obscene 0.78 ERA through the first two months of the season, establishing himself as a true ace and garnering national attention. Even after sputtering a bit in June, he was named the starting pitcher for the National League in the All-Star Game, the first Rockie to receive that honor. While he sputtered in the second half, he still finished the season with 221.2 innings pitched and a 161 ERA+, good for a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young Award race.
The offseason that followed the 2010 season was an eventful one for the Rockies, but not for Jimenez. Troy Tulowitzki signed a long-term extension that would pay him nearly $158 MM and keep him in Colorado until 2020, and Carlos Gonzalez, who broke out in 2010 by winning the batting title and being a legitimate Triple Crown contender, was given $80 MM over seven years. Jimenez, on the other hand, had signed a four year deal after the 2008 season for just $10MM, which seemed incredibly team-friendly after he signed it, but even more so when he put up a Cy Young-caliber season. While few Rockies’ fans were giving much thought to Jimenez’s contract situation compared to the other young stars on the team, it was undoubtedly on Ubaldo’s mind.
Jimenez struggled out of the gate in 2011. In his Opening Day start, he allowed six runs in six innings, and shortly thereafter, he was placed on the disabled list with a cuticle cut. He returned on April 19, but continued to scuffle. In the first two months of the season, he had an zero wins compared to five losses and a 5.86 ERA. While I usually shy away from citing win-loss records, it’s interesting to see the contrast between the beginning of the 2010 season, when he went 10-1 through the first two months, and his disastrous start to 2011. He rebounded in June, posting a 2.45 ERA. On July 7, the Rockies were 42-47, and two days later, it was reported that while the Rockies weren’t shopping Jimenez, but would listen to offers for their ace. The consensus around baseball was that the Rockies would demand an obscene package for Ubaldo, and O’Dowd confirmed that with his “Hershel Walker” comments. However, there was a report on July 25 saying that there was a 50 percent chance that Jimenez would be traded at the deadline. Coming up on the deadline, Ubaldo-to-the-Indians rumors began to heat up, and names such as Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis were thrown around, as well as Pomeranz and White. On July 30, as the deadline loomed, there was consensus that Ubaldo would be going to the Indians, but the Rockies sent him out to pitch against the Padres that night despite that fact. It’s tough to guess why the Rockies had Jimenez pitch that night, but potentially they wanted an another piece from Cleveland. Understandably, Ubaldo seemed distracted that night as he allowed four runs in one inning before being pulled. Soon thereafter, it was announced that Ubaldo Jimenez had been traded to the Cleveland Indians.
Jimenez was pretty terrible in his first two months in Cleveland. In his first start, he allowed five earned runs in five innings, although he did strike out seven batters. Three starts later, it got even worse, as he allowed seven runs in the third inning against the Detroit Tigers and allowed another in the fourth before being pulled. At the end of the season, he posted a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts for the Indians. However, he had a 3.85 FIP in those 11 starts, which is a statistic that inputs strikeout, walk, and home run rates and outputs a number that can be compared to ERA to see if his run prevention was a result of factors outside a pitcher’s control. His FIP showed that Jimenez was subject to bad luck in his first season in Cleveland. Either that or the baseball gods had it out for him.
In spring training of 2012, Ubaldo made headlines pertaining to the Rockies. On March 7, Tracy Ringolsby reported that Jimenez wanted to be traded coming into 2011 because he was upset over Tulo and CarGo’s contracts. A few days later, Jimenez was quoted as saying, “it was kind of hard being with the Rockies. I went through a lot of things that people outside the organization don’t know. But me and the people in the front office know.” Tulowitzki and Gonzalez fired back at Jimenez, with Tulo frankly stating, “While I’ve been here, everybody’s been treated fairly. There’s a certain point in this game where you go play and you shut your mouth.” Gonzalez added that Ubaldo had made a decision to sign an extension after the 2008 season, and sometimes people sign contracts that they end up regretting in the future. A few days before the regular season started, the Rockies faced off against Jimenez and the Indians in one of the final spring training games. In the first inning, Jimenez drilled Tulowitzki with a fastball in the elbow, causing some yelling back and forth and the benches to clear. While Ubaldo employed the standard technique of “deny, deny, deny” when he was asked whether the hit-by-pitch was intentional, there was common consensus that he meant to hit the Rockies’ shortstop. Bud Selig agreed with this consensus, and Jimenez was suspended five regular season games for the incident. The most incredible side of this story is just how quickly Ubaldo’s image from the perspective of Rockies’ fans changed in such a short period of time. Jimenez meant more to Rockies fans than just his stats. He was a living embodiment of pitching success at altitude, which for so many years was seen as impossible around the baseball world. In just the span of a year Ubaldo went from being the pride of the Rockies to having the reputation among the fans as a spineless, greedy player who had a vendetta against his former team.
In 2012, Jimenez struggled throughout the entire season, perhaps to the delight of some Rockies fans. One of the biggest reasons for this was that his fastball velocity was way down from his prime in 2009 and 2010. According to Pitch F/X data, his average fastball was 96.0 MPH in 2009 and 95.8 in 2010. In 2011, that number went down to 93.9 and in 2012, it went down to 92.5. Fangraphs also calculated how many runs above average each pitch in a pitcher’s repertoire is worth compared to the average. Jimenez’s fastball was worth 26.5 runs for the Rockies in 2010, but in 2012, his fastball was worth 19 runs below the average for the Indians. Another huge issue for Ubaldo in 2012 was his control, which was his Achilles’ heel at the beginning of his career, but he brought his walk rates down to reasonable levels by posting a 3.5 BB/9 in 2009, 3.7 in 2010, and 3.7 in 2011. In 2012, he posted a career-high 4.8 BB/9, but his problems didn’t stop there. Coors Field is obviously prone to the home run, but Ubaldo actually limited round-trippers quite well in Colorado to the tune of a 0.6 HR/9. Progressive Field, the home of the Indians, has the opposite reputation as Coors. According to ESPN Park Factors, Progressive Field is in the bottom-third of parks around baseball with respect to being prone to home runs. Nevertheless, Jimenez posted a 1.27 HR/9 in 2012, which was the 11th worst among qualified starters in the American League. At the end of the season, Ubaldo had a 5.40 ERA along with a 5.06 FIP, the latter of which was 4th worst among qualified AL starters. To put his struggles in another context, if Jimenez’s season was neutralized to the run environment of Coors Field in 2012, he would have posted an ungodly 6.36 ERA. Sadly, Ubaldo’s performance wouldn’t have been much of an outlier given the 5.81 ERA that the Rockies’ rotation posted in 2012. As bad as 2014 was, if Will Smith came to my door and told me that he could erase my memory of any season with the neuralyzer from Men in Black, I would choose 2012. Not only did the Rockies embarrass themselves via Project 5183, but the freaking Giants won the World Series. Actually, now that I think about it, that’s basically exactly what’s happening in 2014. Can I erase both seasons from my memory, Mr. Smith?
In 2013, Ubaldo started to get his career back on track, especially in the second half. In the first half, he was a slightly-improved version of his 2012 self. He continued to walk guys and give up home runs at a high clip, posting a 4.83 BB/9 and a 1.19 HR/9. He did strikeout more guys in the first half of 2013 than he did in 2012, resulting in a slightly lower 4.50 FIP. In the second half, he began to show signs of being the same guy that dominated National League lineups in 2010. In 13 starts, he had a 1.82 ERA along with a 10.71 K/9, a 2.89 BB/9, and a minuscule 0.32 HR/9. He was tied with Anibal Sanchez for the highest second half WAR for any pitcher in baseball, according to Fangrpahs. WAR attempts to convert a player’s contributions to the amount of wins that he provided for his team above a hypothetical replacement player. At the end of the season, the Indians finished as the first Wild Card as the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays finished one game behind Cleveland. The Rays won the tiebreaker game over the Rangers, and then beat the Indians in the Wild Card Game. It’s fair to say that without Jimenez’s contributions, the Indians would have not have earned a Wild Card birth, so the acquisition of Ubaldo Jimenez earned the Cleveland Indians a playoff birth even though they only played one playoff game.
In the offseason after the 2013 season, Jimenez was given a qualifying offer from the Indians and turned it down. The qualifying offer is a system put into place when the last Collective Bargaining Agreement was finalized and attempts to compensate small-market teams for losing their free agents. The offer is a one-year deal worth the average of the salaries of top 125 players in the MLB. If the player rejects the offer (no player has accepted it yet in its two offseasons of existence), the team who signs the player loses their first-round pick in the Amateur Draft and the team that loses the player gets a compensation pick between the first and second round. MLB Trade Rumors has a detailed explanation of the qualifying offer system. Jimenez rode his great finish in 2013 to a four-year/$50MM deal with the Baltimore Orioles. With their compensation pick, the Indians grabbed Mike Papi, an outfielder from the University of Virgina. He projects to be a relatively good bat who could have a major league impact in a year or two.
In 2014, Jimenez did not repeat his 2013 performance, and he especially struggled with his control, which is as big of an understatement as when Emperor Hirohito of Japan said, “the war in the Pacific has not necessarily developed in Japan’s favor.” He posted a 5.53 BB/9, which is scientific proof that he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. In fact, Justin Masterson had the second-worst walk rate for pitchers in MLB with at least 100 innings pitched, and he posted a 4.83 BB/9. On August 19, the Orioles, who were one of the best teams in baseball, demoted Ubaldo to the bullpen. He was on the roster as a long reliever for the ALDS, but didn’t pitch in the Orioles’ sweep of the Tigers. He was left off the ALCS roster, and made some negative headlines when it was reported that he was given the option to stay with the team during the ALCS, but decided to go home instead.
All-in-all, Jimenez has proven to be an extremely inconsistent starter in the American League after showing potential for greatness in Colorado. The Indians ended up with two-and-a-half seasons of Ubaldo and a mid-level outfield prospect via a compensation pick out of the trade with the Rockies. In his time with Cleveland, Jimenez posted a 4.45 ERA, an 8.3 K/9, and a 4.3 BB/9. According to Baseball Reference, he posted 1.8 WAR of his 74 starts with the Indians, which indicates that he was a below-average pitcher and definitely not the ace that Cleveland thought they were acquiring at the 2011 trade deadline. However, his amazing second half in 2013 was vital to the Indians making the playoffs, so it’s fair to say that he provided some value during his time in Cleveland.
Next week, I’ll discuss the pieces that the Rockies got in the deal and how they’ve fared since the trade. I’ll also determine who ended up getting the better side of the deal.