I remember that summer day back in 2011 when the Indians acquired what was supposed to be their “ace” for the next couple of seasons. They gave up their two most prized prospects in Drew Pomeranz and Alex White and received a front of the line starter (at least that’s what he was considered to be at the time) in Ubaldo Jimenez. Despite some skepticism, I remember that there was definitely an excitement in the air when we first acquired Ubaldo. We were usually on the other side of these deals, as we had watched our beloved Tribe trade away Cy Young Award winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee just a couple of years earlier. Now we were getting a pitcher that went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA in the previous season, when he started the All-Star Game for the NL and finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting.
The reason I’m recalling all of this is because Ubaldo Jimenez has been such a disaster ever since joining the Tribe that this was honestly the best Ubaldo memory I have. There was such a feeling of hope that day we got Ubaldo as we were finally being buyers for once at the deadline. The Cleveland Indians and their fans are entering the 2013 season with that same feeling of hope. It certainly feels like a new beginning with new manager Terry Francona leading the way along with our aggressive big-market overhaul landing us a couple big-name free agents. However, I’m going to make a statement right now that will likely make a lot of Tribe fans cringe. In fact, I myself actually cringe at this thought, but it’s a reality that we have to face: Ubaldo Jimenez holds the key to the Tribe’s 2013 season.
Right now here’s how the division stacks up: Detroit is the clear favorite and Minnesota is the clear bottom feeder. However, the Indians, Royals, and White Sox are pretty evenly matched when all things are taken into consideration. All 3 teams have strong bullpens. The Indians have the clear advantage in terms of position players if we are taking intangibles such as speed and defense into consideration as well. However, the Tribe falls way short of the mark when it comes to starting pitching. The Royals have their newly acquired ace in James Shields leading the rotation for them, while the White Sox have their young gun Chris Sale followed by quality starters Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd.
I’m actually relatively confident that Justin Masterson is going to have a bounce back year. Even last year in his down year, Masterson was able to eat up a lot of innings and his numbers were skewed a little due to a few terrible performances. I’ve liked what I’ve seen and heard from Masterson this spring though, and I think he’s going to be alright this year. However, for the Indians to have an edge over the White Sox and Royals we need another starter to step and deliver big time for us. I don’t think it’s fair to rely on Brett Myers or Zach McAllister to fill this role, and I don’t think it’s wise to assume that Scott Kazmir has returned to his 2005-2008 form just yet (although if he has, a LOT of problems would be solved). That leaves us with Ubaldo. The thing about Ubaldo is that he truly does have the potential to be a high impact starter for us. However, most of you probably don’t want to hear about this “he has potential” nonsense anymore, and I don’t blame you at all.
From what Ubaldo has done this spring though, I can say that there is some reason for optimism. One of Ubaldo’s well-documented problems since joining the Tribe has been his command. Last year he allowed a ridiculous 4.84 BB/9, which was by far the worst of his career. The good news that I have is that it sounds like Ubaldo cleaned up his mechanics quite a bit with new pitching coach Mickey Callaway this offseason. This spring he has allowed just 7 BB in 30.0 IP. This translates to a BB/9 ratio of just over 2, which is by far the best mark he has ever put up during Spring Training. I know people usually say that Spring Training statistics are not significant, and most of the time they are right. However, this statistic could prove to be very significant for the Indians this season. If Ubaldo maintains his control, then he has good enough stuff to be a great number 2 starter behind Masterson. If the Indians have a great number 2 starter behind Masterson, then they most likely have a leg up on both the Royals and White Sox. If the Indians have a leg up on both the Royals and White Sox, then they are at worst 2nd in the division and legitimate contenders for a wild card spot. Whether you like it or not, Ubaldo is going to have a lot to do with where the Tribe ranks at the end of the season. Let’s hope that he can carry his improved control this spring into the regular season when it really matters.