When the Ubaldo Jimenez trade was first announced at the 2011 trade deadline, I was guardedly optimistic. There were a lot of Cleveland Indians fans who seemed to take a similar position, but a lot more who thought Drew Pomeranz and Alex White were too steep of a price for the Indians to pay for a struggling starter. The prevailing opinion was also based on paranoia that the Rockies knew something was up with Jimenez, that they were trying to offload him before it was too late.
It didn't take long for the guarded optimism to disappear. As Cleveland fell out of the playoff race in 2011, Jimenez certainly didn't pitch like an ace trying to catapult his team into October. Fans just had to hope that he would be able to turn it around in 2012, that he would look more like the 2010 Rockies version of Jimenez, the guy who finished third in the NL Cy Young voting. As he faltered in 2012, it seemed to strike a nerve of rage among most Indians fans. People who were never fully sold on the trade to begin with were seeing exactly what they had feared. Jimenez was so maddeningly inconsistent. Instead of trying to decide whether we would see "good Ubaldo" or "bad Ubaldo" in any given game, I started to flip a coin. Heads was "good Ubaldo," tails was "bad Ubaldo." I talked to a lot of fans who just wanted to release him, see Cleveland cut its losses and move on. The good moments seemed few and far between, and the bad moments were increasing in frequency and intensity.
By the 2013 season, a lot of Indians fans had already given up on Jimenez. But then a strange thing started to happen: The bad moments started to decline while the dominant outings were on the rise. People still didn't want to believe in him; the late 2011 and 2012 versions were just too prominent in their memories. As Jimenez's starts consistently improved, there were still fans who complained about his high pitch counts early in games, griping that he had trouble making it past the fifth or sixth inning. When I told people Jimenez's ERA actually was lower than Justin Masterson's since the beginning of June, they laughed at me and acted as if I were showing them pictures of my Bigfoot sighting.
The Indians are in the midst of the wild-card race -- a half-game behind the Rangers entering Jimenez's start Thursday against the Astros -- and have secured their first winning season since 2007. One of the major reasons for their success is the emergence of Jimenez as the pitcher they envisioned when they traded for him in 2011. Since the All-Star break, he's sporting a 1.83 ERA and batters are hitting just .224/.294/.338 against him (down from a 4.56 ERA in the first half, when batters hit .252/.342/.405 against him). His WHIP has dropped from 1.61 in 2012 to 1.37 in 2013, his swing-and-miss rate has improved dramatically and is closer to his 2010 figure, and his ground ball percentage has climbed by nearly 5 percentage points compared with 2012.
With Masterson sidelined because of a strained left oblique, the Indians need a dominant final two or three starts from Jimenez. The sad thing now is that, just as fans have started to trust and even love Jimenez, he might be on his way out the door this winter. Although he and Scott Kazmir have said they would love to discuss staying in Cleveland, the fact remains that Jimenez has an $8 million option for next season that became both a player and team option once he was traded to the Indians. Even if the Indians pick up their half, it's unlikely Jimenez will do so. When you consider the deals that Edwin Jackson and Kyle Lohse received this offseason, and add in that it's a fairly thin starting pitching market this winter, it makes more sense for Jimenez to angle for a multiyear year deal from some team. Although Indians fans hope he's willing to work with Cleveland to make this happen, there's the fear that a much wealthier team will swoop in with an offer he can't refuse. Plus, the paranoid part of your brain wonders whether he is somehow "fixed" or perhaps this is all just some kind of mirage -- that, instead of the 2013 version, the Tribe would commit a multiyear deal to the 2012 Jimenez.
I think it's a testament to how far Jimenez has come this year that, when asked by a fellow Indians fan whom I would start in the wild-card game (if Cleveland should make it there) if Masterson is unable to go, I answered "probably Ubaldo."
Stephanie Liscio writes for the It's Pronounced "Lajaway" blog on the Indians.