The Orioles are giving much-maligned right-hander Ubaldo Jiménez his spot in the starting rotation back. But the decision might have more to do with breathing life into the Orioles' battered bullpen than anything Jiménez has done over the past three weeks to earn his job back.
Jiménez will start Sunday's interleague series finale against the St. Louis Cardinals at Camden Yards and right-hander Alec Asher — whose four-start stint since replacing Jiménez in the rotation has been substandard — will return to the bullpen. Asher had previously provided stability for a tired relief corps in need of another dependable pitcher.
So for now, the Orioles have decided that Jiménez, who is in the final year of a four-year, $50 million deal — the richest given to a free-agent starting pitcher in club history — is best utilized in the rotation, where he posted a 7.71 ERA in his eight starts this season before being moved to long relief.
Manager Buck Showalter's best bullpens have been constructed with versatile relievers who can pitch in a variety of roles. And Jiménez had to be used scrupulously. He could provide length, but would need more rest between outings than other relievers, which put a bullpen already without key late-inning pitchers Zach Britton and Darren O'Day (both of whom are on the disabled list) at a competitive disadvantage.
It didn't help that Jiménez was the only long reliever without minor league options, so he hindered the club's flexibility in a spot the Orioles tend to prefer pitchers that can be called up and sent down when in need of a fresh arm.
"Ubaldo has responded well to some time in the bullpen and we'll see if that happens again," Showalter said before Friday's series opener against the Cardinals. "Really want to try to see if we can, what's the word, kind of solidify the bullpen a little bit as far as the movement. Ash did a good job for us there and presented himself well as a starter sometimes.
"But I think it's as much for, because Ubaldo, he pitches and he needs three or four days off, it really put us in a tough spot in the bullpen. Plus, he's shown a history of responding well to a little time down there. But it's as much for the bullpen as it is for Ubaldo."
The move might be most indicative of the mess the Orioles pitching staff is in as a whole. The rotation has struggled mightily, returning Friday from a seven-game road trip where the starters posted a collective 12.53 ERA, the worst in baseball during that time. During Jiménez's time in the bullpen from May 28 through Thursday, the Orioles rotation owned an 8.35 ERA, also the worst in the majors.
Showalter is careful about taking a player from an area of strength to supplement an area in need, but that's what he did — granted, with much thought — in taking Asher out of the bullpen to supplant Jiménez. Asher had a 1.62 ERA in 16 2/3 relief innings at the time, and more importantly, he provided middle-inning length and occasionally an inning late when end-of-game relievers weren't available. That's something the Orioles didn't have with Asher in the rotation.
Take that, and the fact that Jiménez could only be used occasionally, and the Orioles bullpen has struggled. During Jiménez's time as a reliever, the bullpen owned a 4.74 ERA, nearly a run higher than the 3.86 ERA it owned before he was sent there. And during Jiménez's time there, the Orioles had to call up eight different relievers in 16 days.
The Orioles have shown they are willing to stick it out with Jiménez, who is still owed about $6.5 million this year on his contract, choosing to keep him on the roster rather than parting ways. While Jiménez might have been the rotation's biggest problem a month ago, the rest of the starters' stumbles since, as well as a lack of reinforcements in the minors signal that there's much more to be concerned about with the staff as a whole.
Still, Jiménez has allowed runs in all four of his relief appearances since moving to the bullpen. He provided the team with valuable length when Asher imploded in his first start in the rotation in Houston on May 28, allowing just two runs over six innings. But overall, Jiménez's 5.27 ERA over his four games since being removed from the rotation is hardly worthy of a promotion.
Though in the past, Jiménez has used time in the bullpen to right himself. Last season, he posted a 3.12 ERA over his final eight starters after returning from a bullpen stint. He also built on a late-season demotion in 2014 with a respectable season the following year, going 12-10 with a 4.11 ERA.
But in those instances, Jiménez went to the bullpen with a focus on ironing out bad mechanics that were a result of his unconventional delivery getting out of whack. This time, both Jiménez and Showalter said his problems had less to do with mechanics than poor execution.
"A lot of it is track record, and he's been crisper out there," Showalter said. "You know, usually when he gets through the first hitter, he's been carrying a little more fastball. But I'm hoping the command of the fastball has been better, too. I'm hoping that carries over into his start."