02/23/12 6:36 PM EST
Ubaldo ready to reclaim his ace status
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
What the Indians can offer now is hope that things will be different -- much different -- in the season ahead.
"I'm excited," Indians pitching coach Scott Radinsky said on Thursday. "I think we're going to see a different guy than what we saw when we got him last year."
The Tribe tossed a considerable amount of its chips last July with that in mind. Cleveland believes it can realistically contend for the American League Central crown, and it could be argued that Jimenez holds the master key to unlock such dreams.
Jimenez wants to prove his new employers right, and he enters this Spring Training in a much better position health-wise than a year ago. The pitcher spent this past offseason building up strength in his legs to help increase the stamina needed to maintain consistent mechanics with his unique delivery.
That is great news for the Indians, considering that Jimenez is in the mix to start on Opening Day, along with sinkerballer Justin Masterson. Behind them, the Tribe has a rotation that will feature Josh Tomlin and Derek Lowe, as well as the winner of the fifth-starter competition this spring.
That last spot was vacated when news broke in January that Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona) was arrested on charges of using a false identity. It is not clear how long it might be before Hernandez rejoins Cleveland. Jimenez was important before. His success almost seems essential to the Indians now.
Jimenez insists that he is not feeling any heightened pressure.
"No, no, no," Jimenez said. "I don't even think about the trade anymore."
It was a trade that could go down as a turning point in Indians franchise history.
On July 31, Cleveland pulled off a stunning deal to acquire Jimenez from Colorado, sending prized pitching prospects Drew Pomeranz and Alex White to the Rockies as part of a larger four-player package. Pomeranz and White were considered cornerstones for the Tribe's future.
Jimenez signaled a distinct change in course.
The Indians had been on the giving end of two blockbuster deals that shipped Cy Young Award winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee out of town in recent years. This time around, Cleveland was on the receiving end, gaining a pitcher who won 19 games and was a National League Cy Young contender in 2010 for the Rockies.
Given that Jimenez is under club control through 2013, the trade to add his arm to the Indians' staff seemed to indicate that Cleveland firmly believes this is a two-year window of opportunity. Jimenez endured a shaky first stint in a Tribe uniform, but everyone in camp with the Indians is convinced that '12 will be different.
"I think we already know what he can be," Radinsky said. "We've seen that. If he says he's heathy, I'm going with it. I'm just curious to see what happens here. Me, personally, my gut kind of has some expectations. I'm not putting them on him, but he's got a good arm, man.
"This guy can really throw the ball. Just on raw stuff, it's tough for the league to catch up to him. He's got some pretty good stuff."
Over the offseason, Jimenez trained in his native Dominican Republic with Nelson Perez, who is a strength and conditioning coach for the Indians. Perez moved to the D.R. to be closer to Jimenez and catcher Carlos Santana, who teamed with the pitcher for regular workouts.
Jimenez's focus was on building up the strength in his lower half and core. Last season, the Indians noticed that the pitcher's stride and landing spot with his lead leg was sometimes different from pitch to pitch. That small issue created a chain reaction that threw Jimenez's entire delivery out of whack.
"It's not a secret," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "If you're striding short and then long and then short and then long, you're going to scuffle a little bit with your consistency of pounding the strike zone and the release point and all that. That really helps him.
"Whether it's going to be short-, long- or mid-range, you need to be consistent with it. It's just kind of mandatory, for a guy like him that has such an unorthodox delivery with all those moving parts, to be consistent with his stride."
This past winter, Jimenez tackled that problem.
"We were trying to stabilize my lower body," Jimenez explained. "Sometimes I threw a pitch and I'd land on one side, and then the next pitch I landed on the other. We worked really hard on my legs. They're stronger right now. I feel really good."
During Spring Training last year, Jimenez cracked the nail on his right thumb and later developed an infection. On top of that injury, the pitcher suffered a strained left groin. Both issues contributed to a poor start with Colorado and sent him on course for a turbulent season.
Overall, Jimenez went 10-13 with a 4.68 ERA (4-4 with a 5.10 ERA with the Indians) in 32 starts. He logged his fewest innings (188 1/3) since 2007 and had his worst strikeout (180) and hits allowed (186) totals since '08. In the process, Jimenez experienced a drop-off of roughly 3 mph with both his fastball and slider.
Jimenez said the injury woes and mechanical issues played a role.
"It's all related," Jimenez said. "Probably if I didn't hurt my finger and then my leg, I would've been throwing better velocity. I couldn't throw because of that."
There is hope to be found within Jimenez's numbers.
Consider that Jimenez's rate of strikeouts per nine innings has stayed in the 8.2-8.7 range over the past three years. During that same span, he has averaged between 3.5-3.7 walks per nine innings each year.
Beyond that, it is worth noting that Jimenez's fastball -- while not the league-leading average of 96.1 mph like in 2010 -- was still the 10th-fastest heater in baseball last season with an average of 93.5 mph.
"That might not be where he's supposed to be," Radinsky said, "but it's still pretty darn good."
Jimenez noted that he plans on featuring all of his pitches in the coming campaign. Last year, while dealing with the various issues, the starter got away from that approach. That means hitters might see as many as six different pitches throughout the course of a game.
All of that can wait, though.
Right now, Jimenez's focus is on being at full strength by Opening Day.
"One of the first things he said this year was, 'I'm healthy,'" Radinsky said. "That brought a smile to my face."
That smile is based on hope that the Big U will be back to his old self this season.