Should the Cardinals Be In On Ubaldo Jimenez?

Jul 20, 2011 at 7:23 am
Should the Cardinals Be In On Ubaldo Jimenez?
The latest scuttlebutt all over the baseball trade landscape has Dan O'Dowd, manager of the Colorado Rockies, shopping his young ace Ubaldo Jimenez. Unsurprisingly, the Yankees have been mentioned prominently, along with pretty much every other big-time contending team with a need for pitching

Including, of course, the Cardinals

So what are we to make of all this? The Rockies have publicly distanced themselves from the idea of moving Jimenez, which is only to be expected, since an admission does plenty of bad and absolutely no good. Still, with this much smoke out there you wouldn't be at all surprised to find a fire. 

For the Cardinals, it would make plenty of sense to try and acquire more pitching help. This team seems to have the whole run production thing pretty well in hand (though they still aren't quite as consistently good as it seems like they should be), but the other half of the equation, that run prevention thing, could use some help. Defense would help, as the middle infield is just a disaster, and pitching would help. Lately all indicators are pointing toward the team preferring a pitcher over a position player, which is just fine by me. 

So a deal for a pitcher would seem to make sense for the birds. Does a deal for this pitcher make sense? 

Well, first off, when considering any potential trade acquisition, the number one question we have to ask is also the simplest: is the guy worth trading for? 

In the case of Ubaldo, the answer is a resounding yes. He's been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball the last couple seasons, in fact. His FIPs from 2009-2011 read like this: 3.36, 3.10, 3.42. His xFIPs (which is FIP with a normalised home run rate, in case you were wondering, which gives an idea of whether a pitcher has been hurt by an ill-timed bout of homeritis), are even more ridiculously consistent: 3.59, 3.60, 3.59. The picture these numbers paint is of an actual, honest to god elite pitcher, the sort of pitcher you almost never acquire. If you luck out and develop one, you lock him up and hold on as long as you can. (See Garcia, Jaime) Ubaldo is very much that sort of pitcher. 

Even better, Ubaldo is cheap. He's signed to a deal currently which has him locked up through 2012, with a pair of options for '13 and '14. The way the contract is written he can void the 2014 option if traded, so let's say for argument's sake he's under team control for the next two years after this. His salary in 2012 is $4.2 million, and $5.75 million in 2013. So one of the best young pitchers in baseball, locked up for two more years, for about $10 million total. Bottom line, the dude is underpaid, and he's awesome. So yeah, he's worth trading for. 

The second question you have to ask is a little more difficult than the first: how much will it cost? 

Well, the news is a little worse on that front, dear friends. Dan O'Dowd has named his asking price for Ubaldo, and it's basically Herschel Walker. No, he doesn't actually want Herschel Walker, but the infamous trade package the Dallas Cowboys received in exchange for the running back, often viewed as the most lucrative trade in the history of professional sports. 

So what would a Herschel Walker package look like from a Cardinal perspective? Well, ignoring the hyperbole of the actual trade, which I hope we've all advanced far enough to consider a terrible idea, we're still staring down an extraordinary haul of talent. It would take one of the Cardinals' two top prospects, Shelby Miller or Carlos Martinez, to begin with. (Actually, you might be able to just send both of them and get away without anything else, but that seems like a bad idea to me.) So whichever of the two the Rockies prefer; Shelby is closer to the big leagues, so let's lean toward him. 

Okay, now add your most valuable trade piece, namely Colby Rasmus. I know, I'm sure everyone out there is celebrating the notion of Colby leaving town, but he's still one of the more valuable players out there right now. Now add in your most MLB ready arm in Lance Lynn. Lynn has looked brilliant out of the bullpen, and has been a starter his whole career in the minors. 

We need another solid piece, and I honestly wish I knew the Colorado farm system better, so I could give you a definite idea of what they need, but I don't. Looking at their major league roster, Todd Helton is getting rather long in the tooth, so they might be interested in a first base type prospect. Matt Adams is getting quite a bit of press lately, with several of the prospect gurus saying he'll likely see their top 100 prospect lists this offseason. There are plenty of questions about Adams, but he hits like a madman and is forcing people to pay attention. 

So we have one cost-controlled center fielder with an .850 OPS season already under his belt, a top 5 prospect in all of baseball, an MLB-ready starting pitcher with a number 3/4 ceiling, and a slugging first base prospect. That feels about right to me for what it would probably take to bring in Ubaldo. If you wanted more name recognition you could swap in Zack Cox for Adams, but Adams has the more intriguing bat at the moment. So either way. 

Now, is that worth it? Well, it depends on what you think the ceilings are for the players the Cards would have to give up, of course, but I personally would say no. Ubaldo will likely produce a ton of extra value over the next two seasons, but when you look at the potential value that trade group could produce it's almost tough to imagine. Still, adding Jimenez would immediately vault the Cards' pitching staff to the top of the division, and put them near the Phillies' pitching staff. When Wainwright returned next season (assuming Carpenter is still around), it might be the best staff in the National League period. 

There is, however, one black cloud in all of this that I don't think a lot of people are paying attention to, and it concerns me quite a bit. Ubaldo's fastball velocity this season is down this season close to 3 mph compared to his last two. In 2009 and '10, Jimenez averaged 96.1 mph on his heater; in 2011 that number is 93.4. It may be nothing. It may be some early-season mechanical issues now resolved. It could be him relying more on movement and not trying to throw as hard. (If it's that last one, he needs to go back to throwing hard, because his fastball hasn't been good at all this season.) Or, it could be something more serious. When a pitcher loses close to 3 mph velocity on his fastball, that's a very scary situation. As often as not, a big decline in velocity like that is one of the first indications of an injury, usually of the shoulder variety. 

I'm sure we all remember the Mark Mulder trade. I know I do every time I see Dan Haren's name in a boxscore or his last start comes up on the highlight reel. You had a pitcher with three brilliant seasons in a row, who was young, locked up on a reasonable contract, and looked for all the world like just the kind of elixir to transform a team into a champion. I saw Mulder night on ESPN. Still a handsome guy. Not sure he can still lift his left arm. 

No, I'm not saying Ubaldo Jimenez is the next Muldoo, and he'll be hurt within months if the Cards were to trade for him. But there's an old adage I think may very well apply here: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. If the Rockies are willing to deal one of the most valuable commodities in all of baseball, then there's probably a reason. Either you're giving up way too much, or there's some other reason they want him gone. 

So in the end, while the thought of Ubaldo/Garcia/Carpenter/Wainwright in any order you like entering the 2012 playoffs is certainly enough to give a corpse an erection, Jimenez frankly scares me a little. Pitchers don't just lose velocity like this without a reason, and the thought of giving up a Herschel Walker package for a player on the slow boat to shoulder surgery should give anyone night terrors. 

Then again, it would give the Cards a legendary rotation, and it's tough to overvalue something like that.