CHICAGO – Orioles right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, demoted to a relief role after continuing to struggle in the team’s crowded rotation, will be available to pitch out of the bullpen Wednesday night against the Chicago White Sox.
Jimenez has made just one relief appearance – out of 232 outings – in his major league career. That appearance came in his major league debut Sept. 26, 2006 for the Colorado Rockies.
Even though it seemed like the only alternative, sending Jimenez to the bullpen wasn’t an easy move for Orioles manager Buck Showalter.
Jimenez is in the first year of a four-year, $50 million deal, the longest and most-expensive contract the Orioles have handed a free-agent starting pitcher in club history, so relegating that kind of investment to mop-up duty is tough.
Also, Jimenez is one of the most pleasant players you’re going to come across in a major league clubhouse. He’s thoughtful and forthcoming, even when discussing his struggles. He has pitched nine years in the majors at age 30, and some of the younger and less-experienced Hispanic players gravitate toward Jimenez and Nelson Cruz inside the Orioles clubhouse.
But these Orioles have an opportunity to seize. Not only are they looking to win their first division title since 1997, but they open play Wednesday just two games behind the Los Angeles Angels for the best record in the American League, which would give them home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
The Orioles need to go with their best five pitchers in the rotation, and right-hander Miguel Gonzalez, set to return from the minors to start Sunday against the Chicago Cubs, gives the club a better opportunity to win than Jimenez does right now. There’s very little to argue there.
When Gonzalez was sent to Triple-A Norfolk in order to activate Jimenez from the disabled list, he had a 2.43 ERA over his last six starts dating back to the beginning of July. He has allowed two or fewer runs in five of those six outings, going seven or more innings three times.
The Orioles wanted to give Jimenez an opportunity to work through his struggles coming off the disabled list – especially given the fact that he posted a 1.82 ERA in the second half of the season last year with the Cleveland Indians – but it was clear Jimenez wasn’t going to duplicate that success, allowing nine runs over 10 1/3 innings in his two starts since coming off the DL. Over his last three starts, Jimenez has an 8.36 ERA with 12 walks over 14 innings.
Moreover, the Orioles can’t afford to allow Jimenez to work through his struggles right now in the rotation, not with so much on the line in the season’s final six weeks.
Jimenez was told he was going to the bullpen before pitchers went out to stretch prior to Tuesday’s game. Before then, Jimenez said he was under the impression he was making his next start as expected -- at least that’s what he told me less than 30 minutes before he was called into Showalter’s office.
“That’s the routine for a starting pitcher,” Jimenez said. “You have to get ready for your next start. … I guess my next start is after [Wei-Yin] Chen, right? That’s when my next start is.”
No one knows how Jimenez will handle going to the bullpen. Some pitchers use it as an opportunity to work on mechanics while building up confidence with short stints. It worked well for former Orioles right-hander Jason Hammel in Colorado in 2011. Sometimes getting out of the spotlight – and the pressure of performing every fifth day – can help struggling pitchers slow the game down.
Jimenez obviously doesn’t have much experience in relief, but he will be surrounded by a good group of pitchers in the bullpen. They’re a group that talks about pitching often and feeds off each other’s success. They keep it loose, which might be what Jimenez needs as his tries to regroup.
There’s no question that the Orioles are a better team when Jimenez is pitching well -- now it’s just a matter of how to get the best out of the offseason’s biggest investment.