Commentary

Indians really need to ride their pitching

Adding Ubaldo Jimenez should make Tribe's rotation formidable from top to bottom

Originally Published: August 4, 2011
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Ubaldo Jimenez was supposed to start Saturday night in San Diego, then he wasn't going to start, then he warmed up with Esmil Rogers throwing next to him in the bullpen, then finally Jimenez pitched one inning. He threw poorly, came off the mound and was told by his manager, Jim Tracy, that he had been traded. Jimenez then hugged his teammates and was no longer a member of the Colorado Rockies. A scout who was at that game called the scene "comical" and "stupid," but in the end, Jimenez is now a Cleveland Indian. "When we heard he was with us," Indians DH Travis Hafner said, "a jolt of energy went through our clubhouse."

[+] EnlargeUbaldo Jimenez
Denis Poroy/Getty ImagesUbaldo Jimenez was 6-9 with a 4.46 ERA in 21 starts for the Rockies before he was traded to the Indians.

The Indians can use all the energy they can get these days. After a 30-15 start, they are 15 games under .500 (24-39); they went from having the best record in baseball after the first 45 games to the third-worst record in the American League, behind the Orioles and Mariners, over the next 63 games.

The Indians are hoping Jimenez can provide that necessary energy -- and he'd better, or they will be in danger of having made a potentially huge mistake. Cleveland traded its top two pitching prospects, Alex White and Drew Pomeranz, each of whom is expected to be in Colorado's rotation not only next season, but maybe in September. The Indians also traded two other young players, one of whom, Matt McBride, is a corner infielder/outfielder who is very streaky but has power.

"They gave up an awful lot," one general manager said, "for a guy you're just not sure about."

The Indians are sure. They got a 27-year-old right-hander who is under control, and affordable, for the next 2½ years. He is the oldest pitcher in a five-man rotation that is loaded with quality arms: Jimenez, Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin, Carlos Carrasco and Fausto Carmona. Jimenez's velocity is down from this time last year, and his numbers are way down, but the Indians feel he still has the stuff, and the makeup, of a No. 1 starting pitcher.

"As soon as I heard we got him," said Indians manager Manny Acta, "I said, 'Great, we're going to have a guy every fifth day that's going to give us a great chance to win.' I know him from the Dominican. He is a great kid. Very intelligent. I love the commercials he did for the Rockies. I'm going to miss them. Now he can do them for the Indians."

"I faced him when I first came up in '09; he had some of the best stuff I've ever seen," Indians outfielder Michael Brantley said. "We'll miss those guys, but we're very excited."

"It was a lot to give up; everyone liked Alex when he was here, and I don't think Drew gave up a hit in spring training," Indians reliever Frank Herrmann said. "But we're not going to meddle in the way the front office works. I would be upset if [general manager] Chris Antonetti came down to the clubhouse and told me how to hold my curveball. But when you look at Ubaldo, was there a better pitcher in the game the first half of last year? When you put him with the other four guys we have, it is a formidable five-man rotation."

Travis Hafner We have a great one-two punch with Ubaldo and [Justin] Masterson. The front office did a great job getting us what we needed.

-- Indians DH Travis Hafner

"Everyone around here is really excited about the trade," Hafner said. "We have a great one-two punch with Ubaldo and Masterson. The front office did a great job getting us what we needed."

But clearly, the Indians didn't get enough at the deadline, even though they really tried very hard and even though they traded with the Cubs for outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. The Indians had interest in Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran, but he said he wouldn't approve a trade to Cleveland because he was more comfortable staying in the National League (he was dealt to the Giants). They actively pursued A's outfielder Josh Willingham, but the asking price was way too high (Willingham stayed in Oakland). They went aggressively after Padres outfielder Ryan Ludwick, but the Padres wouldn't make the trade without Taiwanese right-handed pitcher Chen-Chang Lee (currently at Triple-A Columbus) in the deal, and the Indians said no (Ludwick went to Pittsburgh).

Now the Indians are left with an offense that has struggled mightily since the 30-15 start. And that offense likely will continue to labor without injured outfielders Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore, who are out for another three weeks and a month, respectively. Acta recently spoke to some of his veteran hitters -- there aren't many of them; Hafner is one -- and told them that the team needs even more out of them. The Indians have two good young hitters in 24-year-old second baseman Jason Kipnis ("He's a tough kid, a real grinder," Acta said) and 21-year-old third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall ("Look at that short stoke he has, he has a great swing," Acta said), but flipping those guys into the middle of a pennant race and asking them to produce might be too much to ask of two players so young.

It is clear that the only way the Indians are going to pass the Tigers and hold off the White Sox and Twins in the AL Central is to outpitch everyone. And Jimenez at least gives them a chance. Half the people you talk to believe Jimenez is still an ace despite his drop in velocity from 96 to 93 mph in the past year or so. The other half are suspicious about why the Rockies would trade an ace, believing that something must be wrong with him. Physically, there doesn't appear to be, although at least one team (the Yankees) was worried enough about Jimenez's health that it wanted him to take a physical before it agreed to a trade, a request the Rockies denied. There is mild concern that Jimenez's delivery is so complicated, being able to repeat it has been difficult, and will continue to be.

The Rockies traded him mainly because they badly underachieved this season and, as a mid-market team, they can't plan things year-to-year; they have to do so in three-year blocks. And that's where White and Pomeranz come in. Way down the list of reasons the Rockies were willing to deal Jimenez was that earlier this year, very briefly, Jimenez pouted about not getting a contract extension. He put himself above the team -- again, very briefly -- and that violated the extremely high standards set by the Rockies.

Now the expectations are high for Jimenez in Cleveland. We blast teams for not doing enough at the trade deadline, and some have blasted the Indians for doing too much, taking too big a risk for a rebuilding team, at the deadline. This trade can't be evaluated for another two years until we see how Jimenez does in Cleveland, and how White and Pomeranz do in Colorado. The evaluation process will begin Friday night in Texas when Jimenez will make his first start as a member of the Indians. Rest assured that he won't have someone warming up next to him.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.

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