SARASOTA, Fla. — Just minutes into the news conference that introduced him Thursday morning as the Orioles’ largest signing of a free-agent pitcher in franchise history, right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez acknowledged the club’s uncommonly large investment in him.
In the same breath, the 30-year-old pitcher sent a message from Florida’s Gulf Coast to welcome ears up north in Baltimore, where the press conference was being televised live.
“I know it took a lot for them to bring me here,” said Jimenez, flanked by Orioles manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette. “The only way to pay them back is to go out every five days and get the best out of me and just be there for the team, giving me the opportunity. … We’re here for one thing, and that’s bringing a championship to the city of Baltimore.”
With the news conference at the Ed Smith Stadium complex, the Orioles finalized their four-year, $50 million deal with Jimenez, one of the top free-agent starters on the market this offseason. The contract is the Orioles’ largest given to a free agent since the team signed Miguel Tejada to a six-year, $72 million deal before the 2004 season.
“It took a lot of patience by the fans and a lot of patience by us to add veteran starting pitchers, but this is a robust market for the veteran starting pitchers,” Duquette said. “Every starting pitcher that we were in on, there were four or five other clubs also in on that pitcher, actively trying to sign him with good offers. So we were glad to get a quality starting pitcher in Jimenez and add him to our ballclub at this stage of his career. We think he’ll be a pretty solid addition for us.”
While the Orioles’ biggest offseason move didn’t come until a week into spring camp, the club still was able to acquire one of its top free-agent targets, Showalter said.
“He's somebody we targeted very early in the process,” Showalter said. He added: “Just because God delayed it, he doesn't deny. … He's worth waiting on, and we're glad at the end of the day that he's here wearing the uniform that he should be.”
In adding Jimenez, who threw his first bullpen session with the team Thursday, the Orioles finally got the front-line starting pitcher they’ve needed to bolster their rotation and help their chances of staying competitive in the American League East.
“I’ve been saying this all offseason,” Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. “That I think that’s the kind of guy we needed, a guy who has established himself and a guy who is going to go out there and eat innings and be competitive throughout the course of the season. … I think it adds a guy who has been around for a while and gives us that veteran presence that a lot of our younger guys are going to be able to feed off of.”
Jimenez was 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA last season for the Cleveland Indians and was one of the top pitchers in the game in the second half of the season, when he recorded a 1.82 ERA. He also brings a history of durability to the Orioles. He has made at least 31 starts each of his past six seasons and has posted at least 182 innings five of his past six years.
The Orioles hope Jimenez can duplicate that success against the division’s well-stacked lineups.
“I know it’s a tough division, but I like the challenge,” Jimenez said. “It’s not going to be easy, but I’m very prepared for that. I’m excited to be in Baltimore, and I’m going to do everything possible to meet the challenge.”
After an inactive offseason, the Orioles have signed two pitchers, as Duquette had hoped, since the team arrived in Sarasota. The club also signed South Korean pitcher Suk-min Yoon to a three-year, $5.575 million deal.
“If we went out and we signed these players in October and November, people would be saying, ‘The Orioles are addressing their needs. They are being aggressive. They’re adding good starting pitching. They’re ramping up their team for a run at the title,’” Duquette said. “Well, we didn’t sign them in October, but by waiting, we got contracts with these players that are good for the market, that are good for the team. People understand that we are building our team and ramping it up to be a contending team this season.”
Jimenez’s signing, which cost the Orioles their first-round draft pick through the qualifying-offer compensation process, sent a message not only to fans about the team’s interest in winning win now, but also to team’s core group of players, which is one of the best in baseball.
“We want to contend every year, but we made some conscious choices to put the resources into our pitching staff for this year. We like the core of our team.,” Duquette of a group that includes Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy, Nick Markakis and Davis. “We like our core players. They are at the stage in their careers where they should continue to have good, solid years, and we hope we built our pitching staff properly.”
Hardy, a free agent at the end of this season, said he believes the acquisition of Jimenez will help the Orioles retain free-agents-to-be. Davis and Wieters will become free agents following the 2015 season.
“It definitely crossed my mind,” Hardy said. “You look and see that we’re trying to do things to improve. The last two seasons, we’ve had a couple of good seasons, but to go out there and do this, it shows that we’re willing to spend some money and get better.”
Jimenez had a superb 2013 and was arguably one of the best pitchers in the game in 2010 pitching in hitter-friendly Colorado, where he went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA for the Rockies. But Jimenez was just 19-30 with a 5.09 ERA in 2011 and 2012 with Colorado and Cleveland.
In 2012, he pitched through an ankle injury that sapped the power from his push-off leg; the year before, he had an infected finger on his pitching hand that altered his delivery and affected his mechanics.
“Those two years were a nightmare, but they're in the past,” he said. “As a player, I just have to forget about it and I look forward to the future. I had a great second half last year, and that's what I'm going to take. I'm going to be prepared, and I know that I have the confidence to go out there and .... that I'm healthy and I'm going to be able to compete every five days.”
The Orioles’ deal with Jimenez first developed during December’s winter meetings, where pitching coach Dave Wallace, Duquette and Duquette’s special assistant, Lee Thomas, met with Jimenez and his agent, Fernando Cuza.
“Right there, I knew,” Jimenez said. “They’re really humble, really down-to-earth guys, and I knew it was going to be special to be in this organization. Right there, I was like, ‘Pretty much, this is the team I want to be with.’ It’s going to be a big part of my future for me and my family. The city is great and they have a competitive team. Those guys in the clubhouse look like they are great guys.”
Duquette compared Jimenez to former Dodgers right-hander Ramon Martinez, a former client of Cuza who was groomed by Wallace when he was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitching coach. Wallace also coached Martinez’s brother, three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez, in Boston.
“There is a little bit of a similarity there,” Wallace said when told of the comparison to Ramon Martinez. “Certainly the athletic build. He’s a long, lean guy. He’s probably a little bit thicker than Ramon was. Their deliveries are a little bit different, even though when you’re that long and that lean, it’s a little difficult to keep everything together. … [His delivery] is unique, but that’s why he’s effective. We’ll wait and see.”
With a 6-foot-5, 210-pound build, Jimenez will bring an unconventional herky-jerky delivery that can frustrate opposing hitters with his hard downward angle. He averaged a career-high 9.6 strikeouts a game last season, and while his delivery has led to wildness over his career, he posted an impressive 3.70 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half of 2013.
“The stuff is there,” Wieters said. “The ability is there. You’ve seen it through his major league career. He has stretches where he’s almost unhittable. He’s got so much leverage and so much height that he uses it well. And that’s always nice, to have that kind of angle, because you can make some mistakes and still .... get some ground balls and get away with it.
“On top of that, I think last year, at the end of the year, he really learned how to be able to pitch and locate his fastball and mix in his off-speed stuff. Before, he always had unbelievable stuff, and he still does, but with that location coming along a little bit, you really see what kind of success he can have.”
After facing him, Davis said he’s glad to have Jimenez on his side now.
“I think the first time we faced him last year was in Baltimore, and the second time we faced him, it was in Cleveland and he just shoved it down our throats,” Davis said. “We were like, ‘Whoa, this guy’s found his fastball.’ He was dominant. He comes from a hard angle and he’s got a lot of movement on it.”