Coming out of the 2012 season, it seemed a big question whether or not the Indians would use the first of Ubaldo Jimenez's two team options and bring him back for $5.75 million. To this point, Jimenez had been historically bad, but had shown flashes of excellence in individual starts. Willing to take a chance for the relatively low price, the Indians brought him back and he had his best season since 2010 when he came in third for the NL Cy Young. While it seemed almost a certainty at this time last year that the Indians would never keep Jimenez around for 2014, all of a sudden things are not so clear.
Jimenez is entering his final year of the six year deal he signed with the Rockies in 2009. He has a team option for this final season that would have him making $8M for the year with a guaranteed $1 million upon his release. This means that as far as the Indians are concerned, it is really a $7M decision since they will have to pay him one million either way.
If it was guaranteed that Jimenez would pitch as he did in the second half of 2013 (1.82 ERA and 100 K's in 13 games) and not like the first half (4.56 ERA and 53 walks in 19 games) the Indians would snatch him up in a second, but nothing is guaranteed. With a normal pitcher, there would always be a risk of injury or a decline with age, but with Jimenez there is the added uncertainty of who he really is.
Considering WAR, Ubaldo has still had more seasons of giving his team less than one extra win over the proverbial replacement than he has where he has given them more than one. No team would want to pay $8M for a one win player, but Jimenez still has that potential to be the 7.5 WAR player he was in 2010.
The first step in determining which version will pitch in 2014 is to find the real difference between his first and second half of last season. Mickey Calloway has rightly been given a lot of credit for the turnaround, but there isn't a pitching coach in the league who can make that big of a difference by himself. The most obvious difference between the two halves on the surface was his walk to strike out ratio. Control has always been a big issue with Ubaldo and he found it in the second half, going from a 1.77 K/BB rate to a 3.7. His 10.7 strike outs per nine inning overall were also very helpful in that regard, but the reduction of unnecessary base runners was so much more important.
This increase in control, and through that overall effectiveness, may have been a result of major mechanical changes during the All-Star Break. Over the course of his Indians career, Jimenez has had problems with consistency, which likely had much to do with his inability to hit the strike zone. One thing no one has ever said about Jimenez is that he didn't have the stuff to make it. With a consistent delivery, Jimenez didn't have a single bad game during the second half and only allowed more than two runs a single time, when he gave up three in seven innings against Atlanta. Of course, keeping the same delivery and release point through a couple months while starting every five days and throwing bullpens in between is much easier than keeping it steady after a long off-season.
The question now is whether or not the Indians front office believe this is repeatable. Luckily, this is not a question of luck or a fluke season as Ubaldo has always shown flashes of brilliance, proving that the talent is there, even if the consistency isn't. The Indians will have an advantage here over any other team that would happen to sign Jimenez since they have already fixed him once. Not only that, but the man responsible, Calloway, will still be the Indians pitching coach in 2014. Both the pitcher and the coach deserve credit for the turnaround, but one would have to think there is a much greater chance of continuing the success if the pair stay together.
Jimenez does have the option of declining his option, but that might not be a smart idea for the question marks listed above. There is no guarantee that any team would be willing to give him a long term deal after being so undependable during the past three seasons. However, a strong season back with the Indians in 2014 would make him a prime candidate for a big free agent deal in the following season.
The era of Terry Francona has begun and brought with it a new emphasis on winning. If the Indians are truly all in to win in 2014, then they will resign Jimenez. At $8M, he would be much cheaper than most comparable pitchers on the free agent market and there is more than enough room in the rotation for an arm of his caliber. If they would prefer to focus more on making an even stronger push to the World Series in 2015-17, then Ubaldo should be let go, with his starts being distributed between young starters, readying them for what looks to be a very bright future.