By Eduardo A. Encina
The Baltimore Sun
9:30 PM CST, February 17, 2014
SARASOTA, Fla. — After sitting idle through the offseason, the Orioles finally struck with a long-awaited impact signing on Monday, just days after settling into spring training.
The club agreed to terms with free-agent Ubaldo Jimenez — one of the top starting pitchers remaining on the market — to a four-year deal worth a guaranteed $48 million, according to a club source.
For an Orioles team that lacked headline free-agent signings in recent years, this deal — which is pending a club physical — is monumental and historic. It is the longest and largest contract the club has given a free-agent pitcher in franchise history.
It is the first time the Orioles have given a four-year deal to any free agent since catcher Ramon Hernandez signed a four-year, $27.5-million contract before the 2006 season.
And in terms of overall guaranteed money, it is the club's biggest free-agent signing since its six-year, $72-million deal with Miguel Tejada in 2004, but it equals the $12 million average annual salary Tejada received in that deal.
By signing Jimenez, who pitched for the Cleveland Indians last season, the Orioles have acquired the frontline starting pitcher they've lacked during their recent surge to respectability that has culminated with back-to-back winning seasons following 14 straight losing campaigns.
Orioles vice president Dan Duquette has promised in recent weeks that the club would be a player on the free-agent market, saying he wanted to improve the major league staff by signing at least two pitchers.
And now with the addition of Jimenez and South Korean right-hander Suk-min Yoon, whose three-year, $5.575-million deal was finalized late Monday afternoon, the Orioles are approaching the $100-million threshold that Duquette also promised was possible.
“We said all along that we wanted to sign a couple of veteran pitchers to bolster our staff and we're making progress,'' Duquette said. “It always helps to have a couple of veteran starters who are dependable and can give you innings and solidify the team. They are always the role models.”
With Monday's additions, the Orioles' 2014 payroll sits at approximately $97 million.
As free-agent pitchers Bronson Arroyo and A.J. Burnett signed in recent weeks, the Orioles began to make a push for the remaining pitchers, Jimenez and former Royals pitcher Ervin Santana.
But signing either Jimenez or Santana would require the Orioles to give up their first-round draft pick (17th). And even though Duquette was more open to the idea of losing a pick, the acquisition had to be carefully scrutinized since Duquette's philosophy on sustaining a winner is embedded in player development.
The Orioles were in negotiations with Jimenez in recent days and the fourth year was a sticking point, especially given the Orioles' history of not handing out lengthy free-agent deals.
But according to a source, Jimenez had received interest from two other American League East clubs, the Red Sox and Blue Jays. It is not known to what degree those teams had interest, but it definitely played a role in the Orioles' chase of Jimenez, the source said.
Whether the move quells an agitated fan base that has craved a head-first dive into the free-agent spending pool comparative to division rivals New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox remains to be seen. But before signing Yoon and Jimenez, the club's biggest offseason acquisition was a two-year, $4.5-million deal with reliever Ryan Webb, who was non-tendered by the Marlins. Two other signings, including a two-year, $15-million deal with closer Grant Balfour, were squashed after concerns arose following their physicals.
While they built one of the best groups of core position players in the game — a cast that includes Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy and Nick Markakis — the Orioles' biggest need has been starting pitching. Until this signing, they had yet to make a play for a free-agent starter, but also weren't handcuffed by a big contract.
But the signing not only sends a message to fans that the club is trying to win now, it does the same to the Orioles' pending free agents. Hardy becomes a free agent at the end of this season and Davis and Wieters go on the open market following the 2015 season.
Jimenez was 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA last season in 32 starts with the Cleveland Indians. His best season came in 2010 in hitter-friendly Colorado, where he was 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA for the Rockies.
At 30, Jimenez was one of the youngest free-agent pitchers available this season, and he's started at least 31 games in each of the past six seasons. He's recorded at least 182 innings in five of those six years, including 200-inning seasons in 2009 and 2010.
Like most free-agent starters available this offseason, he comes with a risk. A strikeout pitcher — he is coming off a season in which he recorded a career-high 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings — he is also prone to wildness and a high pitch count. As good as he was in 2013, he led the AL in losses in 2012 (17) and had a 5.40 ERA on a bad Indians team.
Also, his ground-ball rate has dropped in recent years from 52.5 percent in 2009 to 38.9 percent in 2012 and 43.9 percent last year, which could present a challenge at hitter-friendly Camden Yards.
Even though he would be penciled in to pitch in the front of the Orioles' rotation, Jimenez wouldn't necessarily be handed the Opening Day starter nod since right-hander Chris Tillman won a career-high 16 games last year.
But it does now create a crowded starting rotation. Entering camp, the Orioles appeared to have just one rotation spot open with Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris slotted for the rotation.
Zach Britton, Steve Johnson, T.J. McFarland, Alfredo Aceves, Brian Matusz, Kevin Gausman and Yoon were all considered in the running for the fifth rotation spot.
Fox Sports and MASN were the first to report the story.
Born: Jan. 22, 1984
Home: Dominican Republic
Best season: 19-8, 2.88 ERA for Colorado Rockies in 2010
Last season: 13-9, 3.30 ERA with Cleveland Indians
Career: 82-75, 3.92 ERA with Rockies, Indians
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