The Orioles have played well enough this season that even their biggest concerns don't seem particularly urgent.
But sometime soon the club must decide whether it can afford to leave its most expensive pitcher in the rotation as the postseason nears.
Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, making his second start since coming off the disabled list last Saturday, remained maddeningly inconsistent in the Orioles' 6-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians Saturday night.
And now the burning question is whether the Orioles need to take him out of the rotation.
"If something like that was going to change, he'd hear it from me first, obviously," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter.
Signed away from the Indians this offseason to a four-year, $50 million contract — an Orioles record for a free-agent pitcher — Jimenez was nearly perfect in the middle innings of Saturday's start.
But in the first and fifth he couldn't throw strikes and allowed two homers to dig his team into an early and deep hole. He was pulled with one out in the fifth after being tagged for six runs.
"As the games dwindle you have got to continue to put your best foot out there," Showalter said. "And on a given night it might be Ubaldo. Tonight, obviously, it wasn't."
With the loss, the Orioles (69-52) saw their lead in the American League East shrink to 61/2 games over Toronto and seven ahead of New York as the Blue Jays and Yankees both won Saturday.
It was the first time since June 28-29 that the Orioles lost two in a row, snapping the club's streak of eight consecutive series victories. The Indians (62-60) will go for the sweep Sunday at Progressive Field. The Orioles have been swept just once this season: May 12 to 14 at home against the Detroit Tigers. They were shut out for the ninth time this year and for the first time since July 31.
After totaling 41 runs in their five-game homestand last week, the Orioles have scored just once in 20 innings in Cleveland thanks to excellent starts from right-handers Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco.
"We feel pretty confident with what we are able to do," said designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who had one of the Orioles' four hits Saturday. "It was one of those games. We get two really good pitchers back-to-back. We can go [Sunday] and change everything."
Making his second start since April, Carrasco (5-4) limited the Orioles to three hits and no walks in seven scoreless innings Saturday.
"Those guys are really good," said Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph. "Kluber is probably one of the hottest pitchers in all of baseball and the guy tonight was really good."
The club's recent offensive outage, though, masks the most pressing storyline: What to do with Jimenez?
With right-hander Miguel Gonzalez eligible to be promoted from the minors Tuesday and potentially start Wednesday at the Chicago White Sox, the Orioles will have a six-man rotation unless they demote Jimenez to the bullpen.
"It's not up to me to think about that," Jimenez said. "Only thing I can do is go get ready for my bullpen (side session), get ready. It's not up to me."
With so much money tied to Jimenez over the next three-plus years, he is an untradeable commodity and has no minor league options remaining. The 30-year-old hasn't pitched in relief since his major league debut in 2006 and his inability to consistently throw strikes makes him a poor fit for anything but a mop-up role. But the Orioles might have no choice but to find out.
"You think about everybody in your rotation at some point (as a bullpen possibility) if something happened on a workday or what have you," Showalter said. "Everybody's capable of doing it, just because they haven't done it — a la (closer) Zach Britton — doesn't mean they can't do it, whether it be Miguel or whoever you are talking about."
Showalter acknowledged that with Gonzalez's pending return, he and pitching coach Dave Wallace might have to make an imminent decision on Jimenez.
"We know that Miguel has a chance to come back to us on Tuesday and we've got some off days there, we'll see," Showalter said. "We'll take a step back, Dave and I, and see what direction we want to go with it."
To be fair, Jimenez (4-9, 4.83 ERA) recorded a quality start last weekend against the St. Louis Cardinals — three earned runs in six innings — and is still working his way back from a sprained right ankle that kept him out for a month. It's been a week since he last pitched, and he proved in the second half last year with Cleveland that he can dominate for an extended stretch.
"It is hard. It is really hard," Jimenez said of his uneven performances this year. "You have to forget quick. You can't get stuck in one start. You have to move on, get ready for the next one."
On Saturday, he was in familiar surroundings, but in an unfamiliar position. Having pitched for the Indians from July 2011 through last October, Jimenez had never stepped on the Progressive Field mound as a visitor. It started out poorly.
Whether it was nerves or rust, Jimenez walked the Indians' first two batters, Michael Bourn and Jose Ramirez, on a combined 11 pitches. After getting a fly out, Jimenez faced his old batterymate, Carlos Santana, who caught Jimenez more than all but one catcher (Chris Iannetta) in the right-hander's nine-season career.
The familiarity worked in Santana's favor. He absolutely crushed a 92-mph fastball from Jimenez, planting it into the trees in deep center — an estimated 422 feet from home plate — for his 21st homer of the season.
Thirteen pitches into the bottom of the first, Jimenez was down 3-0. After allowing another single, Jimenez struck out the final two batters to end a 33-pitch first inning and kick-start a run in which he retired 11 of 12 batters.
But the inconsistent Jimenez struggled again in the fifth. He surrendered a leadoff double to former Oriole Chris Dickerson, who scored on a one-out single Ramirez. Michael Brantley followed with a two-run homer to right, his 18th of the season.
"I've been through a lot in my career. I've been at the top, I've been at the bottom," Jimenez said. "That's something I put in my mind. You have to forget about what happened. You have to get ready for the next one."
Instead of answering the challenge in his former home ballpark, Jimenez's performance Saturday raised more questions. Ones that must be answered, definitively, soon.
"It's difficult, because you know it is in there. And you want to try and call pitches that kind of get him back on track," Joseph said. "You are just trying to facilitate him throwing strikes. And, when he does that, he does a good job for us. We are going to need him to throw strikes. It's in there. We believe in him. He'll be better."
- Major League Baseball
- Ubaldo Jimenez
- Baltimore Orioles
- Cleveland Indians
- Corey Kluber
- American League East
- Detroit Tigers
- St. Louis Cardinals
- Toronto Blue Jays
- Chicago White Sox
- New York Yankees
- Zach Britton
- Michael Bourn
- Michael Brantley
- Carlos Carrasco
- Chris Dickerson
- Chris Iannetta
- Carlos Santana
- Nelson Cruz