After a surprising 2013 Cleveland Indians season the organization has higher expectations for 2014 than any season dating back to 2008. The Indians and their fans will expect a playoff team and World Series contender. For the month of October, we’ll look at the how the Indians became a contender, but most importantly, How Do the Indians Reach the Next Level?
Ubaldo Jimenez is living proof that organizational long-term plans can change quickly.
A year ago Jimenez was one of the worst pitchers in the American League, going 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA and league leading 16 wild pitches in 2012. The only discussion a year ago was if it was worth picking up Jimenez’s 2013 option, valued at just $5.75 million. With new manager Terry Francona and new pitching coach Mickey Callaway coming on board, the Indians decided to pick up Jimenez’s option for 2013. Considering the lack of starting pitching available at the top of the Indians’ minor league system, and the $5.75 million still being below market value for a free agent starting pitcher, the Tribe had little choice but to bring him back.
While the Indians would never admit it, they likely felt when they picked up Jimenez’s 2013 option that it would be his last season in Cleveland. Since being obtained from the Colorado Rockies on July 30, 2011, the one-time rotation ace has been more of a hindrance to the Tribe. When the Indians picked up his option a year ago, they had to assume Carlos Carrasco would rebound from Tommy John surgery in 2011 or Trevor Bauer would emerge as highly-touted ace they traded for last December. If Jimenez could improve and fill a rotation spot in 2013, the Indians could decline his unclear mutual option for 2014 and go another, likely cheaper, direction.
A year later it isn’t the Indians trying to distance themselves from Jimenez, but instead make every effort to keep him on the roster.
Carrasco and Bauer each struggled in Major League starting opportunities. As the season progressed, each were jettisoned back to Triple-A Columbus. Carrasco eventually returned to the Indians’ bullpen in August, while Bauer was very pedestrian in Columbus and was never recalled after a May 30 implosion in Chicago when he gave up five runs in two-thirds of an inning. Thankfully, Danny Salazar emerged from the Tribe’s crop of young minor league pitchers to provide a second half surge that was once counted upon from Carrasco or Bauer.
Meanwhile, Jimenez seemed to undergo a transformation before the Indians’ very eyes. After starting the season 1-2, with a 7.13 ERA in his first five start, Jimenez improved nearly every month of the season. By the second half of the season he was becoming a leader of the pitching staff. When Justin Masterson was injured on Sept. 2, Jimenez became the staff ace and was dominant, going 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA in the final month. He was the American League Pitcher of the Month in September and the Indians retooled their rotation to have him set to pitch the final day of the season to secure a playoff spot. If Cleveland had advanced to the American League Division Series, Jimenez was slated to pitch Games One and Five in Boston. After two and a half years, Jimenez was finally the Tribe’s ace.
Now, the Indians are welcoming the opportunity to exercise Jimenez’s $8 million option for the 2014 season. However, that’s where the problems begin in bringing back Jimenez, who finished the season 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA in 182 innings. He was the only Tribe starter to not spend considerable time on the disabled list. Healthy, durable and a leader in the rotation seems to be $8 million well spent for 2014 and the chance to finally put him as a dominant tandem with Masterson in the rotation. If the Indians want to seriously contend for the American League Central Division and a pennant, Masterson and Jimenez at the top of the rotation seems like a good start.
But when Jimenez was traded by Colorado to Cleveland in 2011, a clause in his contract changed his 2014 option from a team option to a mutual option. It means both sides, the Indians and Jimenez, must elect to exercise the option. The Indians will gladly exercise their end of the option, but it’s projected Jimenez could land a contract around a three-year, $39 million deal if he declines his end and instead elects free agency. Don’t be surprised if his agent opens the offseason looking for a four year deal. Four years would get Jimenez the full 10-year Major League Baseball pension. Considering the Indians several escalating contracts for 2014, competing for Jimenez on the open market could be tough for the organization. It’s a position they never thought they’d be in a year ago.
Yesterday, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti told 850-AM ESPN Cleveland host Bruce Hooley that the Indians want Jimenez back for 2014 and his mutual option is unclear. According to Antonetti, Jimenez’s contract does not state any specific date that he must inform the Indians by as to whether he wants to exercise his end of the mutual option. They have sought clarification from the Rockies and Major League Baseball, but received little directions to this point.
But assuming Jimenez can opt out of his contract, regardless of if he wants to return to the Indians, he will opt out. His strong season—especially his second half—will garner a team hope that Jimenez has rekindled the brilliance he once had in Colorado when he was 15-1 at the All-Star Break in 2010. For the last two months of this season, he was an ace. Getting an ace pitcher at approximately three years and $39 million is a discount on the free agent market. In major league baseball, future contract years are guaranteed. Turning down that opportunity at guaranteed money would be foolish on Jimenez’s part.
Assuming the Indians do want to bring back Jimenez, they are best served to use October—before he can officially opt out of his contract and file for free agency—to reach some kind of long term extension. The Indians have never done well competing for free agents on the open market, whether it is their own or another team’s player. Cleveland does have something no other team can tout, pitching coach Mickey Callaway. Callaway is the only pitching coach of five to interact with Jimenez since 2010 to make strong progress with the pitcher. A pitching coach capable of rebuilding success and comfort must have some value in Jimenez’s eyes.
If Jimenez does opt out of his contract for 2014 and the Indians cannot sign him to an extension before he reaches the free agent market, the Tribe should strongly consider offering him the new one year, free agent qualifying tender in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Teams have the option of offering any player who files for free agency a one year tender, valued at the average of the top 125 salaries in Major League Baseball. Last year, it was a $14 million contract. None of the nine players offered the tender accepted. It is unlikely Jimenez would accept, either.
If Jimenez did accept the Indians one year tender at around $14 they would be overpaying for him for 2014, but have the advantage of only being indebted to him for a year at such a high price. There’s some advantage to not having to sign him long term since is past is such a roller coaster. If he declined the tender and signed elsewhere, the Indians would receive an additional first round pick in the 2014 First Year Player Draft in June.
What other options do the Indians and Jimenez have?
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