Originally written on Waiting For Next Year  |  Last updated 3/19/12

Everyone in the baseball universe has essentially said the same thing about the chances for the Indians to compete with the Detroit Tigers for the AL Central crown. They will not be able to hang unless Ubaldo Jimenez finds his old form and pitches like the the top of the rotation starter that Chris Antonetti thought he was getting last summer. Not that anyone has forgotten, but the Indians sent their top two pitching prospects – Alex White and Drew Pomeranz – to get him.

When the Tribe made the deal, there were whispers that Jimenez was hurt. His velocity, which when healthy was regularly in the 95-96 range, was more like 90-91. The command was very up and down. From start to start, the Rockies didn’t know which Ubaldo was going to show up. On top of that, it was well known that Ubaldo was not thrilled that the Rockies had taken care of their other young stars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez long term, yet he was still looking for his extension. Adding all of those things up, Colorado GM Dan O’Dowd decided to put his ace on the market with two and a half years left on a club-friendly contract.

The Indians, still right in the hunt for the AL Central, bit. The company line was they were acquiring an in his prime, top of the rotation starter with two and a half years left on his deal. I was on board with the deal when it came down. I saw what Antonetti was trying to do. He saw a two-year window and he was going all in for it. The Tribe’s top positional player prospects are essentially all here. The rest are in A ball level. The time to contend is now.

Now is also the time for Ubaldo Jimenez to show that he is the perfect compliment to Justin Masterson as the lead dogs in the Tribe rotation. But the big question on every Tribe fans mind right now is will Ubaldo ever be that guy?

I write off last season’s 11 start stint with the Tribe to Ubaldo not be completely healthy. In 65 innings, he was 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA, a 1.45 WHIP, striking out 62 and walking 27. This offseason we were told he was working closely with the team in his offseason throwing program and he publicly admitted that he was bothered all last season by a groin injury. So we entered Spring Training with a reportedly healthy and happy Ubaldo, who said being on the Indians was “heaven” to him.

If this is heaven, then his pitching this spring is somewhere south of there.

Jimenez has made four Spring starts. In all four, he has been shaky at best and has really had trouble with his command. The velocity is back up, which is a good sign, but if he doesn’t have his command, Ubaldo usually finds trouble. The numbers are ugly – 15 hits, 10 earned runs, six strikeouts, and nine walks in 9.2 innings pitched. That said, Jimenez doesn’t seem the least bit worried.

“Every time you go to the mound, you’re working on your pitches, the pitch count and get people out at the same time. But it’s not the same as the season,” he said.

I tend to agree. Spring Training games are for guys putting in the work and for a starter like Jimenez, finding that command. But I have to admit I am starting to get concerned. Seeing what Jimenez has become since his magical 2010 season where he started 15-1, started the All Star game for the National League, and finished 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA and 214 K’s in 222 innings, harkens me back to another 19-game winner we once knew.

Think back to 2007 when a big, strong right-hander burst onto the scene in Cleveland with a power sinker that nobody could touch. Start to start, there may have been no pitcher who was tougher to hit. Like Jimenez in 2010, he won 19 games and looked like the next great right-handed pitcher in baseball. He was going to be the future ace of the Indians staff.

That man was named Fausto Carmona. (and for the sake of this post, we will refer to him as Fausto Carmona)

A small difference between the two – 2007 was Carmona’s first year as a starter in Cleveland while Jimenez’s career year of 2010 was his third as a member of the Rockies rotation. We all know the direction Carmona’s career took after 2007. He’s gone 33-48 with an ERA north of five. Things had gotten so bad for him between injuries and mental issues that he was sent all the way back down to Rookie ball in 2009 to re-learn the mechanics of pitching. He never fully regained his form, yet was the Indians opening day starter last season. By the time 2012 rolled around, he was expected to be nothing more than the fifth starter and innings eater for the Tribe before his identity situation was exposed.

Is Jimenez going to follow a similar path? Its way too early to make any sort of judgment that way. I sincerely hope that he is correct, that these Spring Training issues are nothing to be worried about, and he comes out firing rockets and is the guy the Indians hoped he would be. But if he isn’t, and the 2010 Jimenez is long gone, it could be detrimental to this organization.

Only time will tell.

photo via Chuck Crow/PD

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