When the Orioles signed right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez before the 2014 season to the largest deal they'd ever given to a free-agent pitcher — a contract worth $50 million over four years — he arrived in Baltimore with a reputation as an innings-eater, a veteran pitcher a team could trust to give the ball to every fifth day.
He had averaged 198 innings and 32 starts per year over his previous six seasons, and tied for sixth in the majors in games started over that span, starting more games than same-age pitchers better known for their durability, such as Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke.
Even though Jimenez arrived in Baltimore as a mixed bag who had battled inconsistency — the Orioles signed him during spring training, his market muddled by being attached to a compensatory draft pick — he always maintained his health despite possessing one of the quirkiest deliveries in the game. He came to the Orioles having spent just 18 days on the disabled list in his career, and never missed time for any arm problem as a major leaguer, a rarity for a starting pitcher.
That, in some ways, is why his three years with the Orioles have been befuddling. When signing a pitcher to a lucrative free-agent deal, the biggest risk the team takes on is the health of his arm. More often than not, the most difficult question is whether that player can stay healthy for the length of a contract.
As Jimenez, who turned 33 in January, enters the final year of his contract with the Orioles, that hasn't been a problem. Instead, he has had constant battles with his mechanics over the past three seasons that have at times forced the Orioles to bump him out of the rotation to break down every part of his delivery in the bullpen.
Jimenez has seen success when he has found his mechanics mojo. After being demoted to the bullpen in the second half of the 2014 season, he stopped bringing his hands over his head, and built that momentum into a strong start to 2015 despite returning to his natural delivery.
Last year, he was again sent to the bullpen, where he worked on taking more time before breaking his hands, which added more fluidity to his delivery. Jimenez found it allowed him to get behind his pitches more to keep his sinker down in the strike zone. In the second half of the season, Jimenez posted a 2.82 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .183 batting average.
"It was a small thing," Jimenez said. "I didn't even see it. I kept going to the mound thinking to myself, 'What am I doing wrong because it doesn't feel right?' My mechanics were like I was a robot or something. But I had to think about every single move I was doing instead of going to the mound not having to think about my mechanics and just thinking about getting outs. That's what was difficult for me last year, just getting to the mound in the first half and I didn't know what I was doing wrong."
Because of those lapses that forced Jimenez to be sent to the bullpen, he has averaged just 26 starts and 151 innings per years in his three seasons with the Orioles. He spent one time on the disabled list with the Orioles after a freak injury in which he turned his ankle in the parking garage of his apartment complex.
Even though right-hander Chris Tillman will open the season on the disabled list recovering from lingering shoulder soreness, the Orioles starting rotation enters this season with more stability than recent years, especially with youngsters Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy coming into their own. Despite a rocky beginning, left-hander Wade Miley, a 2016 trade deadline acquisition, found his footing over his final three starts of the season. But it might be more consistency from Jimenez that could give the Orioles the biggest boost.
In his three seasons in Baltimore, Jimenez has posted a 26-31 record and a 4.72 ERA, including a 5.44 ERA last year, the highest in his 10 full big league seasons. Even with a strong second half last season, high pitch counts foiled his ability to get deep in games, and he averaged less than 51/3 innings per start for the year.
"We're hoping the consistency can match the durability," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. Showalter has constantly reminded reporters that Jimenez might have been the team's best pitcher in the second half of last season, especially when answering questions about going with Jimenez in the wild-card game while closer Zach Britton went unused.
Jimenez himself has a lot to gain from a strong 2017. Like Tillman and Miley, he can become a free agent at the end of the season. Jimenez has received two solid contracts — after his first full season, he signed a four-year, $10 million deal with the Colorado Rockies in 2009 that consumed most of his arbitration years before his deal with the Orioles — and has the rare opportunity for a third. Even this season, he can add an extra $400,000 to his $13.5 million base salary with 32 starts or 200 innings. He has only reached one of those marks once in his three years in Baltimore, making 32 starts in 2015.
The last time Jimenez was a pending free agent, in 2013, he used a strong second half with the Indians as a springboard into the offseason. He posted a 1.82 ERA in 13 second-half starts, with 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.70-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
"I go to bed praying every night for it to happen, for him to have a great [final] year like he had last time," executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "So, I'm going to go and light a candle that he has a year like he leads the team to the playoffs like he did when he was with Cleveland."
Jimenez said he's more focused on maintaining consistency and helping bring the Orioles deeper into the postseason. Jimenez pitched in a World Series as a 23-year-old with the Rockies in 2007.
"I put focus on everything I have because of my team," Jimenez said. "I've already had three years over here and we haven't gotten where we want to be and that's playing in the World Series, so I'm putting more focus on that than thinking about being a free agent. I only think about ending it the right way.
"It's been a journey. I've had my ups and downs, but I've had a great experience overall because it was the first time I was a free agent. … It's been a great journey, especially being in this clubhouse. You want to play every day with those guys because they want to make you better every single day and they want to be there for you. You can't ask for any more than that. That's a part of life. Things aren't always going to be the way you want them to be. You're going to have to fight through it and I think that's what I've done."
Inside the Orioles clubhouse, no one questions Jimenez's ability or his work ethic, which makes his struggles more frustrating for all involved. Jimenez said he has kept his arm healthy by adhering to an "old-school" method of training that focuses on distance running, throwing long toss every day and doing shoulder exercises — practices he learned as a teenager in the Dominican Republic before he signed with the Rockies as an international free agent.
"I remember running distance every day for an hour, half-hour, so by the time I got to Colorado, they did the same, too," he said. "Every time you threw a bullpen, you had to run 20-30 minutes even in spring training. So it's been a routine I've done since I was 15, 16 years old because I saw a lot of guys doing that. When I met [Dominican pitchers] Pedro [Martinez], Ramon [Martinez], Juan Marichal, every time they talked it was about how hard you have to work, that you need to do your distance to give your arm a chance to be healthy for a long time.
"I remember watching videos of Nolan Ryan. After the game, he would go to the gym and do quad exercises and things like that. I saw Trevor Hoffman, he'd run and do steps and the beach and things like that in San Diego. That's something you saw. When I came up, when you went to any stadium, you saw the veteran guys working that way."
Jimenez said training to keep pitchers' arms healthy has changed since he arrived in the majors and now he has incorporated both. He said the Orioles' routine is important to prevent him from breaking down as he gets older, saying the team's athletic staff is one of the best in "guiding you on the right path so you can be the best physically prepared for the long haul."
Ultimately, Jimenez has the goal of pitching 200 innings this season, realizing that it's his performance on the mound that looms as the biggest obstacle rather than the physical grind of the season.
"Of course that's something I'm looking forward to, and that's being able to get into 200 innings," Jimenez said. "It's been a while since I've done that. But I work hard every day to get myself into that position in the game. And I think I'm going to be able to do that because I'm in a good place with my mechanics right now."
Ubaldo Jimenez's stats with the Orioles and before his arrival
The signing of Ubaldo Jimenez before the 2014 season marked the Orioles' first significant contract awarded to a free-agent starting pitcher. Jimenez's time with the Orioles has been mixed. Over his six full major league seasons with the Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians, he averaged 13 wins, 32 starts and 198 innings per season with a 3.90 ERA. Here are his year by year numbers with the Orioles:
Year; G/GS; W-L; IP; ERA
2014; 25/22; 6-9; 1251/3; 4.81
2015; 32/32; 12-10; 184; 4.11
2016; 29/25; 8-12; 1421/3; 5.44