It may have taken some time, but it appears as if the Indians’ offseason plans are finally becoming a bit clearer.
None of these moves could be described as big acquisitions, but it does at least signal that the Indians are trying to address their concerns and get… better.
Better — that’s an interesting word to consider.
The Indians won 92 games last season and also earned one of the American League’s Wild Card berths. Knowing that, it’s not going to be that easy for the team to get much better; it’s very difficult to win much more than 92 games in a season.
So let’s consider that word one more time. Has this team actually positioned itself to be better in 2014?
Offensively, it looks as if that may be the case.
Also, we know the back of the bullpen was a problem area for the Indians in 2014. They did improve that a bit by acquiring the lefty Outman, and Axford will now be the closer. However, Axford has not been a closer since 2012, and he also has a career average of 4.0 walks per nine innings. Tribe fans can probably expect that Axford has a comparable performance to Chris Perez, and it’s no guarantee that he will offer much more than that.
Also, it appears as if the Indians are banking on offensive players like Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Asdrubal Cabrera having much better seasons at the plate. It does seem likely that all three of these players could rebound, but what if then Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis also have down years at the plate?
In all honesty, it seems fair to conclude that the offense has made a slight improvement with the addition of Murphy over Stubbs, and the bullpen does seem a bit more stable. The team now has two viable left-handers in Outman and Marc Rzepczynski, and that was not the case last season.
But there is one area where the team is noticeably thinner — starting pitching.
As of now, the rotation appears to be Justin Masterson, Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister. The fifth spot in the rotation will likely be decided in a battle between Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer and Marcum.
Sorry, that’s simply just not enough.
The Indians have already lost Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who both played integral roles in leading the team to the postseason last year. Do the Indians win 92 games without either of these two guys last year?
Kazmir has since moved on and signed a contract with the Oakland Athletics, yet Jimenez is still out there.
Now, get ready for one bold statement followed by a bold prediction.
The Indians need Ubaldo Jimenez to re-sign.
Ubaldo Jimenez will be a Cleveland Indian in 2014.
Sound a little too confident to you?
It may be, but this is something that really seems to be a logical fit.
The reality is that the Indians gained a whole lot of leverage when they extended a qualifying offer to Jimenez.
Jimenez was arguably the best pitcher in all of baseball during the second half of 2013, but he was also arguably the worst pitcher in all of baseball during the entire 2012 season.
His 2013 second half ERA of 1.82 with 100 strikeouts in 84 innings was mighty nice, but teams are still wary about trusting him moving forward. Now, if there were not a qualifying offer attached to Jimenez, then he likely would already be gone by now.
However, teams do not want to commit millions of dollars and also have to sacrifice a draft pick and money from their signing pool to sign Jimenez.
Of course, there is one team that does not have to sacrifice a draft pick to sign Jimenez: the Cleveland Indians.
Is it starting to make sense now?
As we get farther and farther into the offseason, it becomes more and more likely that Jimenez could return to Cleveland in 2014. He has previously expressed how happy he is in Cleveland, and the starting pitching market has yet to develop.
The other thing that cannot be overstated is the Mickey Callaway factor. Prior to this season, Jimenez was a mechanical mess. As noted earlier, he was easily the worst pitcher in all of baseball in 2012.
It was hard to even be cautiously optimistic heading into 2013, but Callaway somehow was able to work his magic. Jimenez’s second half performance in 2013 was the best stretch of his career, and that says a lot because he was a pretty effective pitcher for many years in Colorado.
Jimenez likely realizes that he probably owes some of his success to Callaway, so he is probably open for a reunion in 2014, especially if the price is right.
Also, I want to be clear that it is also in the Indians’ best interest to re-sign Jimenez. His performance during the second half of 2013 was not that of back-of-the-rotation or middle-of-the-rotation type starter. It was a bonafide ace-like performance; arguably the best performance that the Indians have seen from any pitcher in years.
Because of his history, there is always going to be some risk involved, but every move that the Indians have made this offseason has risk.
What if 2013 was the start of a trend and Murphy continues to struggle?
What if Axford is wild at the back of the bullpen and is removed from his closer’s role by June?
Those are clear and fair questions. Questions also would surround the re-signing of Jimenez, but there is a marked difference between Jimenez and the team’s acquisitions like Murphy and Axford.
Murphy is coming off a horrible 2013 season and Axford has not been a closer since 2012. In other words, the Indians are hoping that both of these players rebound and perform better than they did in 2013.
In comparison, Jimenez is coming off a brilliant 2013 season. Isn’t it better to sign a player who is coming off success rather than failure?
There also seems to be a good chance that Jimenez’s success could be sustainable. Take a look at the graph below. This shows Jimenez’s velocity during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, when he was at his best in Colorado. In 2009, Jimenez went 15-12 with a 3.47 ERA, and he was even better in 2010 as he went 19-8 and posted a 2.88 ERA.
It’s clear that this guy was an absolute flamethrower.
Yet, now here is a velocity chart for Jimenez’s second half of 2013 where he went 8-5 with a 1.82 ERA.
The velocity is noticeably down from what it was in 2010. However, Jimenez had even better results during this stretch. One of the reasons for that was the fact that he was able to reduce his walks down to just 2.89 batters per nine innings while his career average is 4.0.
That’s a good sign moving forward. It would be unrealistic to expect Jimenez to routinely post ERAs of 1.82, but it appears as if he can be a very effective starting pitcher. Callaway has stressed that the key for his success is repeating his delivery, and he seems to have taken that advice to heart.
There is no clear answer out there right now as to what Jimenez’s salary in 2014 might look like. The reality is that the market has stalled, and that has to be a good thing for the Indians.
Look at the strides that Jimenez made in 2013, and now let’s just speculate a bit. Let’s say the Indians are able to sign Jimenez up for three years and $40 to 45 million. That type of contract would have seemed outlandish just two months ago, but it seems as if something in that neighborhood could become a reality.
Also, that contract is an absolute bargain if Jimenez continues to perform as he did during the second half of 2013. Aces do not come cheap, and Jimenez proved that he is still more than capable of being one.
We know the Indians seem to have an ace in the making in Salazar, but if they re-sign Jimenez, they could have a competent one-two punch for years to come.
The other reason why the Indians need to consider making a move on Jimenez is the fact that it is becoming less and less likely that Masterson returns to the Indians following the 2014 season.
Masterson will be eligible for free agency after this season, and there has been no news about a possible extension. If an extension is not reached by the beginning of the season, then it probably becomes a foregone conclusion that Masterson is traded at the deadline or leaves in free agency.
The Indians might be able to deal with the loss of one of the two pitchers, but there’s no way they could survive the loss of most.
Also, the ironic thing is that while Jimenez may have more question marks (considering his up-and-down performance in recent years) than Masterson, but he also may have more upside.
The remarkable thing is that Masterson likely to get more money in free agency than Jimenez simply because he’s been more consistent in recent years. So, in other words, the Indians might be able to re-sign a better pitcher (Jimenez) for a cheaper price than what it would cost to re-sign Masterson.
Masterson may just be the most important variable when it comes to re-signing Jimenez. If the Indians believe they can reach an extension with Masterson, then perhaps they stop pursuing Jimenez.
However, if they think Masterson is going to wait to test the free agent waters, then they need to do everything possible to re-sign Jimenez… and now.
The other variable here is Callaway. It would be interesting to have the opportunity to pick his brain, and the Indians front office has likely done just that. If Callaway could have just one of Masterson or Jimenez, who would he choose?
The Indians may ultimately have to make that decision.
Nonetheless, it’s now December 20, and Jimenez’s name has hardly even been mentioned among all the Hot Stove talk.
The market has been slow to develop, and it will probably stay that way until the situation with Japanese hurler Masahiro Tanaka is resolved. Still, we know that the goal this offseason is to get better. That means that the team needs to win more than 92 games in 2014.
Sorry, but there is no way that happens without another premiere starting pitcher in the fold.
Remember, Jimenez once said playing for Cleveland is like “heaven.” He’s always seemed to be an honest young man, so why should any of us not take him at his word now?
Steve can be reached via email at email@example.com.