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Orbiting Cleveland: Resigning Jimenez should be top priority

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It’s October, and the Indians are now out of the playoffs.

That means Tribe fans are only thinking about one thing — free agency.

Yet before a team goes out about signing Major League free agents, it needs to first look at its own possible free agents.

That’s an especially interesting topic for the Tribe this season because for the first time in years, the Indians find themselves with a handful of intriguing free agents.

Last year, players like Roberto HernandezTravis HafnerJack Hannahan and Casey Kotchman highlighted the list of possible Indians free agents. It was pretty hard to make an argument about retaining any of those players, eh?

Yet, compare last year’s class to this year’s. Those names are now replaced with players such as Scott KazmirJoe Smith andUbaldo Jimenez. All of the aforementioned players will be in line for hefty raises this offseason, and that also speaks to the success that the Indians were able to have in 2013.

In fact, according to FanGraphs, those three players alone accounted for 6.1 wins (Jimenez 3.2, Kazmir 2.5, 0.4). Take six wins away from 92-70 Indians and what do you have? You certainly don’t have a playoff team.

Moving forward, there is no doubt that all of the three pitchers mentioned do have value to the Indians, and a case can be made that they should be retained if the price is right.

Of course, retaining two high-upside starting pitchers as well as a proven setup man is a task easier said than done. We all know the budget parameters that the Indians must stick within, so it’s hard to believe that they will be able to sign all three.

Last year, the team had an Opening Day payroll of $82,517,300. Even with a 20 percent increase in ticket revenue, it’s hard to believe that the Indians will deviate too much from that number.

So with limited resources and a limited budget, what should the Indians do?

It’s a hot topic at the moment.

The IBI’s Jim Pete eloquently presented his case in Wednesday’s edition of the Corner of Carnegie and Ontariowhen he suggested that the Indians sign both Kazmir and Jimenez this offseason. He suggests Kazmir signs a two-year, $18 million deal while he hopes Jimenez signs team-friendly, three-year, $33 million deal with a fourth-year vesting option that kicks in when he meets an innings threshold.

Pete’s not the only one thinking ahead to the Tribe’s possible free agents. In an excellent edition of his weekly Trend Spotting piece, the IBI’s Michael Hattery suggests the Indians attempt to lockdown Kazmir with a deal that could be worth a total of $37 million across three years if Kazmir reaches incentives and a vesting option.

It seems to be a fair price point, especially for a left-handed pitcher who was electric in the second half as Kazmir posted a 3.38 ERA and struck out 10.25 batters per nine innings in 72 innings following the All-Star Break.

Ideally, the Indians would be able to sign all three of Kazmir, Jimenez and Smith. However, as realists we know that this is the Indians we’re talking about, and the chances of that happening are slim to none.

So with that being said, who is the key guy for the Indians to keep if the team is able to retain just one of three?

While popular opinion will likely disagree, a strong case can be made for Jimenez.

By this point, everyone knows what Jimenez did in the second half of the season. But just to recap, let’s go over it one more time.

In 13 starts after the All-Star Break, Jimenez posted a 1.82 ERA in 84 innings of work. It can be argued that not one single player played a more important role in the Indians clinching a postseason berth.

Not Justin Masterson.

Not Scott Kazmir.

Not Jason Kipnis.

Not Carlos Santana.

Not Nick Swisher.

Not Yan Gomes.

No one.

Jimenez’ second-half performance down the stretch legitimately ranks among the team’s best pitching performances in history. Yes, he was that good.

Yet, as hard as it may be to believe, there was another stretch in Jimenez’s career where he displayed such dominance. You might remember a time when Jimenez was a young flame-throwing hurler for the Colorado Rockies.

Well, in the 2010 season, the right-hander got off to just a torrid start. Jimenez was selected to start for National League after going 15-1 in the first half while posting these numbers:

The FIP and xFIP do seem to indicate that the ERA may be a tad generous, but it’s hard to argue with the performance. Jimenez was a legit ace, and it was numbers like these that led Tribe General Manager Chris Antonetti to deal away Drew Pomeranz and Alex White to acquire the right-hander in July 2011.

Of course, we all know what happened in the season and a half that followed the trade. Jimenez struggled with his mechanics, control, drop in velocity and just his general consistency. He went from being an effective Major League starter to someone that many questioned whether he even belonged in the Major Leagues.

But then the 2012 offseason happened. And more importantly, Mickey Calloway happened.

After being hired as pitching coach for the Indians, Calloway made two trips to the Dominican Republic to work with Jimenez. Instead of insisting that Jimenez tweak his mechanics, Calloway encouraged Jimenez to just work on repeating his delivery over and over again. In other words, he was attempting to help a “thrower”become more of a “pitcher.”

Results were almost immediate. Even in spring training, Jimenez showed improved control and posted a 4.80 ERA in 30 innings while walking just seven batters.

His also seemed to get better as he progressed through the regular season. After posting a 7.13 ERA in April, Jimenez posted a 4.23 ERA in May followed by a 3.09 ERA in June.

Then in the second half of the season, Jimenez was flat out dominant. Take a look at the numbers below:

Without question, this was the best stretch of Jimenez’s career since the first half of the 2010 season. Yet, there are also some telling things to point out:

  • Jimenez’s K/9 rate of 10.71 in the second half was second in the American League during that span, trailing only Yu Darvish, who posted an 11.96.
  • While his ERA of 1.82 was very impressive, his FIP of 2.17 suggests that Jimenez was pitching that good. There was not nearly as much luck involved as one might think.
  • His ERA of 1.82 in this 13-game stretch was better than the 2.20 ERA he posted in 18 games during the 2010 season. Additionally, his BABIP over the second half of 2013 was .298 compared to .250 in the first half of 2010.
  • All the numbers seem to suggest that Jimenez’s 2013 second half was actually better than his first half in 2010.

The reality is that Jimenez’s 2013 second half was so dominant that describing it as ace-like just may not do it justice. There’s also another thing to consider when comparing it to his strong 2010 stretch.

The two graphs below indicate Jimenez’ velocity and pitch usage during the first half of the 2010 season:

In 2010, Jimenez averaged nearly 98 miles per hour on his fastball and sinker, so it’s easy to see why he threw those pitches so much. In fact, in May of 2010, Jimenez actually threw his sinker, which averaged 97.18 miles per hour that month, 52.69 percent of the time.

Jimenez was essentially a pitcher who was letting hitters know he’d be throwing a fastball and just challenging them to hit it. In essence, he was the definition of a pure thrower.

Yet, now take a look at Jimenez’s velocity and usage during the second half of 2013:

Clearly, Jimenez’s velocity is not what it once was. The most his fourseam fastball and sinker averaged during the second half of the season was 93.58 and 93.33 miles per hour, respectively.

Yet, look at the usage of his slider during this stretch compared to the first half of 2010. Jimenez threw his slider nearly 25 percent of the time following this year’s All-Star Break, which is markedly different from his usage of the pitch during the first half of 2010.

The bottom line is that Jimenez has shown rapid improvements from his time in Colorado. He now has a much better feel for all of his pitches, and he seems to be much more at ease when he takes the mound.

The ironic thing is that when Jimenez was first acquired, Antonetti was hoping to get something that resembled the Jimenez of 2010. It may have taken some time, but when it was all said and done, Antonetti and the Indians got something better.

So this then brings us back to the point of resigning Jimenez. Plain and simple, this needs to be the top priority of the team this offseason.

Many naysayers argue that Jimenez’s second half is not a large enough sample size to warrant a big, multi-year deal. They argue that Jimenez is far too inconsistent for the Indians to commit so many resources to.

For them, Jimenez imploding and reverting back to his 2012 is already a foregone conclusion.

But what if it’s not?

What if Jimenez has really turned the corner and changed for the better? What if Jimenez’s second half is just a precursor of things to come?

For years, the Indians have been overmatched by not having a pitcher who can go toe to toe with the likes of Justin Verlander, but Jimenez could now be the guy who can do just that.

Of course, what happens will ultimately be a financial decision. The Indians probably want to keep him, but there is the question as to whether they can afford him.

MLB Trade Rumors suggests that Jimenez could be looking at a three-year, $39 million contract with the chance of it being worth four years and $52 million. In his Sunday Tribe Happenings piece, the IBI’s Tony Lastoria suggested that an Anibal Sanchez type deal (five years, $80 million) is probably the floor for what Jimenez could garner this offseason.

Either way, it’s imperative that the team resign him. One can also always hold onto the hope that Jimenez may be willing to offer the Indians some sort of hometown discount. Remember this is a guy who was quoted as saying “This is like being in heaven for me,” in regard to pitching for the Indians.

If that is indeed true, then perhaps Jimenez would be willing to sacrifice some dollars to stay in his divine place.

The final argument that seems to surface against resigning Jimenez is that the Indians need to save that money to be able to resign Justin Masterson. That itself seems to also be a point that could be up for debate.

Make no mistake about it, Masterson is a great pitcher.

He’s an absolute horse on the mound.

He eats up innings like crazy.

He also generates a ton of ground balls and gets his fair share of strikeouts.

Yet, for every yin there is a yang, and for Masterson it’s the fact that he is essentially a two-pitch pitcher. He’s an excellent starter right now, but if resigning him is going to be in the $80 million to $100 million range, that seems asinine.

What happens when he starts to lose some velocity and sink on that fastball? He may very well be able to adjust, but what if he can’t? An $80 million or $100 million commitment to Masterson seems to be just as big of a risk. Remember this is a guy who is just a season removed from a year where he posted a 4.93 ERA in 206 1/3 innings of work.

Of course, the good thing is that we’re not the ones who have to make these decisions. The Indians will have to decide whether they’re willing to commit top dollars to Jimenez at some point this offseason.

It will also be interesting to see if the idea of resigning Masterson is an issue in all of this.

However, there’s one final thing to consider.

Through it all, the prevailing theme with Jimenez is affordability. Can the Indians afford to keep Jimenez?

Yet, perhaps it should be looked at in a different light.

If Calloway has indeed fixed Jimenez and he has legitimately established himself as a front-of-the-rotation ace, then how can the Indians afford to be without him?

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