Out of another spring of short starts by right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez has grown the seemingly annual ritual of questioning just how long the Orioles can sustain keeping him in the team's rotation.
Jimenez failed to get a batter out in the fifth inning in Monday night's ugly 14-7 loss to the Minnesota Twins, ending with his sixth start in eight outings in which he has been unable to get beyond five full innings.
"Of course I don't feel good about the way I've been pitching," Jimenez said. "I know it's not enough."
The Orioles staked Jimenez to two early five-run leads Monday that he couldn't hold. Jimenez watched helplessly from the dugout as the Twins evened the score at six after he exited the game following four consecutive hits — three singles and an RBI double.
"They just came out swinging," Jimenez said. "It was one of those nights where everything you threw, they just found a way to put a good at-bat on it and find a hole."
Jimenez was charged with six runs after allowing 11 base runners (nine hits, two walks) and even more unsightly than his season ERA of 7.17 — which is the second worst among major league starters with at least 40 innings this season — is an 9.26 mark over his past five starts.
"Obviously, the results aren't very good," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "A lot of it is some balls in the center of the plate, not many counts in his favor. Hasn't really had consistent out pitches for him."
Jimenez's latest stumble put his future in the rotation in doubt. After the game, Showalter said he wouldn't announce that kind of decision before informing the player.
"Certainly I understand the production hasn't been there like it needs to be and if there are adjustments to be made we'll make them, but I'm certainly not going to talk about things like that in this setting," Showalter said. "But I understand this is a question we ask every time we have some consistent struggles at a certain part of our game."
In the past, the Orioles have been patient with Jimenez. The club realized that his quirky delivery resulted in a constant battle with his mechanics, but hoped the four-year, $50 million investment the team made in him — its 2014 early-spring training signing of Jimenez was the longest and largest the franchise has ever given a free-agent pitcher — would eventually pay dividends.
The Orioles moved Jimenez to the bullpen, allowing him time to work out his mechanical problems, and over time, he'd usually return to the rotation and perform better. But one key caveat to the seesaw marriage between the Orioles and Jimenez lasting always seemed to be that the club was on the hook for his salary if they parted ways.
Now, in the final year of his four-year deal, it would seem the leash is shorter. Still, Jimenez's salary for this season is $13.5 million, with $2.25 million of that deferred, so the club would still be on the hook for about $8 million by releasing him now.
While the Orioles have sent Jimenez to the bullpen in the past, that was when they could account for giving him time to work out his problems while being seldom used. They might not have that luxury this season. With closer Zach Britton on the disabled list, this year's bullpen has been in flux, with Showalter juggling keeping his key late-inning arms from being overused with managing a constant shuttle of pitchers between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk to keep fresh length in relief.
"There's always that possibility," Showalter said when asked whether moving Jimenez to the bullpen would be good for the right-hander. "Is it good for the bullpen? That's another question. Those moves were made with Zach here, OK? So, there's some different scenarios, but we're going to try to put our best foot forward."
At this point, however, there's no clear successor to Jimenez's rotation spot, which could extend his term in the starting five.
"It's tough," Jimenez said. "You want to forget about whatever happens in the game before and just move on to the next one. It's not easy. But you have to find a way. This is baseball. You have to find a way to move on after whatever happened the day before."
This time last year, Showalter and the Orioles were in the middle of a miserable run for Jimenez during which he lost his rotation spot. He had a 3.91 ERA in the first month of the year, but in seven of his next nine starts, he allowed five-plus runs or didn't pitch out of the fifth inning.
Six of them met both of those criteria. He had a 6.89 ERA when he made his last start before moving to the bullpen the first time after lasting one-third of an inning in a June 12 start in Toronto. He was sent to the bullpen to work in long relief, pitching once over the next nine days. But he returned to the rotation again before he was sent to the bullpen for a five-week span through July and August — save for one spot start against the Twins in Minnesota.
Still, Jimenez eventually earned Showalter's support late in the season, and had a 3.12 ERA in his final eight starts before the Orioles' season ended with Jimenez on the mound in the American League wild-card game in Toronto.
In his other down year, 2014, he stumbled to a 6.59 ERA in April and somewhat steadied himself over the ensuing two months. But an ankle injury in July was seen as fortunately timed for a team whose patience with his frustrating starts had been wearing thin.
After Monday's outing, Jimenez made every attempt to remain positive, knowing he has been in similar situations before, saying he can't be worried about losing his rotation spot, but can only continue to prepare for his next outing.
"Whatever it is, I can't control that," Jimenez said. "It's one [of my most challenging times], for sure. But I think I've been there before. I just have to stay positive. I know it's not easy. It's not easy, but I'm going to find a way to get back."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jon Meoli contributed to this article.