Yankees free agent target: Ubaldo Jimenez

Eric P. Mull-US PRESSWIRE

Ubaldo Jimenez bounced back from a pair of down seasons to become one of the top starters on this year's free agent market.

Back in June of 2011, I was lucky enough to get field level seats behind home plate for a nondescript mid-week game between the Yankees and Colorado Rockies. I'm usually a nosebleeds guy, so I was looking forward to seeing the action up close for once. Unfortunately, all I really got a good look at was then Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez making a lot of Yankee hitters look silly. With a fastball that touched the mid 90's and some filthy breaking stuff, the second runner up for the 2010 National League Cy Young Award struck out seven over seven innings en route to an easy victory.

It was that performance in part that left me sorely disappointed a month later when the Rockies put Jimenez on the trade block and the Yankees didn't have a Drew Pomeranz-type prospect to get him with. Jimenez went to the Indians instead, which actually turned out to be a pretty good thing for New York. The 6'5 righty struggled through his first season and a half in Cleveland. In 2012, he was among the worst pitchers in baseball with an embarrassing 5.40 ERA and a WHIP of 1.61. Inoculated by severely diminished velocity, he lost 17 games and walked an abominable 4.84 per nine innings all while surrendering a career-worst 25 home runs.

In 2013, especially later on, the old Ubaldo seemed to be back. The trade from Colorado voided an $8 million team option for 2014, so he's now one of the more enticing options in a fairly well-stocked cupboard of free agent starters. Jimenez turns 30 in January, making him also one of the younger pitchers available.

As the Indians battled with a slew of other teams for a wildcard berth this season, Jimenez was the ace they needed down the stretch. In the 2nd half, he held hitters to a .219/.286/.320 triple slash while posting a 2.89 ERA and a 2.17 FIP. He allowed two earned runs or less in twelve of his final fourteen starts and one or less in eight of them. His overall numbers were solid, too. His 3.30 ERA, 3.43 FIP and 1.33 WHIP all topped his career norms of 3.92, 3.78 and 1.35.

Probably the primary reason for Jimenez's resurgence was an updated approach. His Colorado heater didn't return - his average fastball speed of 91.7 was easily a career low, down considerably from the 96.1 he was consistently hitting with the Rockies in 2009 and 2010 - but still he managed a career-best 9.56 K-rate, thanks to increased reliance on a nasty slider. He also mixed in his splitter more than ever before while moving away from a curve that was losing its effectiveness. The fact that Jimenez made adjustments to pitch better should buoy hopes for his continued success more than a magical velocity rebound in a contract year would.

Jimenez answered most of the questions surrounding him this season, but a few still persist. He's struggled to go deep in games, averaging just 5.71 innings per start in 2013 and 5.74 since joining the American League in mid-2011. His ground ball and fly ball percentages haven't returned to their Colorado levels. While he's allowed more than 17 home runs in a season just once, a fly ball rate of 36.3 percent would have to be a concern for the Yankees in particular. Coors and Progressive Fields aren't exactly known to be pitcher-friendly, but right-handers who allow too much airborne contact tend not to fare especially well in the Bronx.

Contract-wise, Jimenez should be able to top the four-year, $52 million dollar deal that Edwin Jackson got from the Cubs last year at roughly the same age thanks to his higher ceiling. Something between four and five years and $60 and $70 million could get it done. That's enough that the Yankees probably couldn't afford him in addition to either Hiroki Kuroda or Masahiro Tanaka, but if Kuroda declines his qualifying offer or Tanaka goes elsewhere, Jimenez might be the best alternative on the table. He'll cost a lot less than Matt Garza and he's younger and still has more upside than Ricky Nolasco or Ervin Santana.

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