Jimenez deal forces closer look at prospect value

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Earlier this week, a scout in the middle of his 130th straight day on the road – or maybe it was his 131st; he loses track sometimes – doled out a homework assignment. He's been around for a while and turns sour when he hears all the talk about prospects.

"Go look!" he said. "Look at the last 10 years. And tell me how many pitching prospects blow their arms out or just stink or don't even make it. I think you'll be surprised."

Trade-deadline duties left the project unfinished until Saturday night, when the research actually served a purpose. Pitching prospects came into focus during the most shocking deal before the July 31 deadline: Cleveland acquired the best player on the market, Colorado Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez(notes), for left-hander Drew Pomeranz, right-handers Alex White(notes) and Joe Gardner, and first baseman Matt McBride.

Ubaldo Jimenez pitched eight strong innings on July 9, part of a stretch where he won five of seven decisions.
(US Presswire)

Industry sentiment called it a win for Colorado, especially with the inclusion of Pomeranz and White, two of the game's most highly touted young pitchers. Pomeranz is a 6-foot-5, 230-pound left-hander who figures to rank somewhere among the top 25 prospects in the game after he finishes this season at Double-A. White, a right-hander with a big fastball, entered the season No. 47 on the list of Baseball America, the prospect bible.

Both fit the scout's criteria, though since it wouldn't be fair to judge players on Baseball America's 2009 or 2010 lists – many of whom remain in the minors – the 2008 rankings made the most sense, with the majority included now in the big leagues. And so it went: Scan a decade's worth of Baseball America's top 50s, and see how the pitchers did.

Now, this was not scientific. More eyeballs and guts to divide players into three categories: Good, OK and Bad. The Good were the sort of players Colorado dreams Pomeranz and White become – aces, innings eaters or top-flight relief pitchers. The OK were serviceable major leaguers – league-average ERA for a couple years, nothing special. And the Bad – well, they ran the gamut, from blown-out arms to flamed-out chances to scorched-out stat lines.

By the time all 10 lists were scanned and vetted, the scout was due a call that would contain two messages.

1) That homework assignment was mind-blowing.
2) The industry is wrong. The Indians made a great deal.

"Here's the thing," the scout said Friday. "If you have a chance to get a known quantity, someone who has been there and done that, you do it. Do you understand?"

Ubaldo Jimenez is 27 years old. He arrived in 2007 with an odd delivery in which his arms seem to cantilever in the wrong direction. Somehow he coaxed 100-mph fastballs from that funk. Last year, his fastball, splitter, slider and curveball played together with harmonic beauty. Jimenez started 13-1 with a 1.15 ERA – one of the best starts in history and the blossoming of a toolset that reminded scouts why they value projection over production.

It's that sort of dreaming that has birthed the prospect revolution. It's funny: The majority of scouts employed by baseball teams file reports on amateur and minor league players, and the scouts bellyache about the overvaluation of the very prospects whose existence necessitates their employment.

Baseball's prospect fetish is more pragmatic than some font of avant-garde theory. In a nutshell: Prospects are cheap. Whether it's the Indians, with their revenues in the bottom 10, or the New York Yankees, everybody likes a sale. So the smartest teams horde prospects and use them judiciously – sometimes to trade for the best player on the market, like the Indians did with Jimenez, and other times to complement their major league team, as they've done with third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall(notes) and second baseman Jason Kipnis(notes).

It's no surprise the Indians left both out of the Jimenez trade. Top position-playing prospects have found success at a far greater rate than their pitching counterparts. Over the last 10 years, Baseball America has placed a pitcher among its top 50 exactly 200 times. It's only fair to exclude Nick Adenhart's(notes) two years on the list, as he died early in his major league career. Of the remaining 198, just 67 made the Good list. Which means 131 times – almost exactly two-thirds – the pitcher ended up at best middling starter or a reliever with a worthwhile career and at worst on the Bad list.

And the vast majority were Bad, 96 of 131. In other words, nearly half the time a pitching prospect ranked in Baseball America's top 50 over the past decade, his career bombed.

Matt Riley

This isn't limited to the players toward the bottom of the list, either. In 2000, for example, the top six pitching prospects were Rick Ankiel(notes) (No. 1 overall), Ryan "The Little Unit" Anderson (No. 9), John Patterson (No. 10), Mark Mulder (No. 12), Kip Wells(notes) (No. 14) and Matt Riley (No. 15) – all ranked higher than Pomeranz and White. Ankiel forgot how to pitch, Anderson ended up in culinary school, Patterson threw his last pitch at age 29, Mulder threw his at 30, Wells gave up more than 1½ baserunners per inning in his career and Riley debuted at 19 and finished at 25.

The next pitcher on the list is Josh Beckett(notes), and the one after that A.J. Burnett(notes), and Francisco Cordero(notes) and Jon Garland(notes) and Barry Zito(notes) and Eric Gagne appeared that year, too. So did Chris George and Wes Anderson and Chad Hutchinson and Jason Standridge, who, like Alex White, Baseball America ranked 47th.

In sabermetric circles, the acronym TINSTAAPP – there is no such thing as a pitching prospect – isn't intended for literal interpretation. It's more a warning that kids in their late teens and young 20s are doing something very unnatural with their arm, and that some arms – a lot of them, actually – aren't up to throwing 100 pitches every five days. Some even fall apart, at the elbow or the shoulder, and require surgery that necessitates painful and strenuous rehabilitation that's as much a mental test as it is physical. And if the pitcher can come back then, often he becomes a new pitcher, because an arm with a scar just ain't the same as one unscathed.

Maybe Drew Pomeranz and Alex White are different. Perhaps the velocity Pomeranz lost late last year as a junior at Ole Miss was an aberration and he'll throw 10 healthy seasons. It's possible the middle-finger injury that has kept White on the disabled list since May is nothing more than a fluke at which he'll laugh when the Rockies are celebrating another World Series that came from the Jimenez trade. Luck could well be on their side.

It's just that history says it isn't.

"We're out there on almost everybody," Cleveland general manager Chris Antonetti said last week, and he meant it. Cleveland is 53-51, deadlocked with first-place Detroit in the loss column and 1½ games back. For the Indians, who have gone 23-36 since their incredible start, whose opponents have outscored them by 10 runs this season, whose starting outfield today consists of Michael Brantley(notes), Ezequiel Carrera(notes) and Kosuke Fukudome, the trade for Jimenez was a monumental gamble.

Drew Pomeranz was traded shortly after making his home debut with Double-A Akron.

They gave up six full seasons of club control on four players – that's 24 potential seasons – for two years, two months of Jimenez. Which Jimenez they're getting is what ultimately will determine the deal as much as Pomeranz and White. If it's the 2010 version, the Indians now can stack Jimenez alongside Justin Masterson(notes) as a potent 1-2 combination, and with Kipnis and Chisenhall and Asdrubal Cabrera(notes) and Carlos Santana(notes) and Travis Hafner(notes) and a great bullpen and the returning Shin-Soo Choo(notes) and Grady Sizemore(notes), they can give the Tigers a run for the American League Central title this year and sustain a nice core for a couple more.

If it's the 2011 Jimenez – the version who threw one of the single worst innings of the season Saturday night – the trade could be another miscue on par with the Indians not receiving a single high-impact player from the trades of CC Sabathia(notes) and Cliff Lee(notes). Jimenez, clearly distracted by the deal and yanked after that one inning, threw 44 pitches, allowed four runs and never cracked 94 mph with his fastball.

It's been a concern all season, Jimenez's velocity. It regularly reached 100 mph last season. Now he's lucky to hit 97 mph once a game. He used to be the hardest-throwing starter in baseball. Now he sits at 93.7 mph – about three-quarters of a mph harder than White. One Rockies source said the team believes Jimenez is healthy. Before the trade is official, the Indians will run Jimenez through a physical and see for themselves.

With a clean bill of health, they'll reap the other benefit of Jimenez aside from his arm: his contract. For the next two years, Jimenez is due a total of $9.95 million. The Indians might make that in beer sales. Should Jimenez right himself – his ERA as well as his Fielding Independent Pitching number since the beginning of June was 3.03 before Saturday's disaster – Cleveland will have the single best post-arbitration contract in baseball.

And that's why they paid 24 years' worth of prospects: Opportunities such as this come along so infrequently, it's imperative to seize them. Is it risky? Hell yes. Is it something that can waylay a franchise for years? Uh-huh. It's also the sort of go-for-broke deal other low-revenue franchises simply wouldn't pursue because they lack vision, fortitude or both.

Antonetti is staking his reputation on this deal, and it's admirable considering the red flags. He's also not dumb. He understands that unless Jimenez bottoms out in Cleveland, value will remain in his arm, and should the Indians need to extract something from it next season, he'll be the same Jimenez with the same excellent contract available for one year and two months – or, in 2013, with two months and draft-pick compensation attached to him. By acquiring him now, Antonetti bought himself two potential deadlines to re-deal Jimenez.

"If you can get yourself an ace," the scout said earlier this week, "you get yourself an ace."

Ubaldo Jimenez has been an ace. He still may be. The Indians weren't going to get one of those on the free agent market, and unless they were one of the lucky few, they probably weren't going to develop one, either.

So they gave up a lot – a lot of potential unrealized, a lot of risk for the Rockies to assume and, yes, a lot of years of control they may regret losing. No matter.

The Indians made a great deal.

Now it's time for Ubaldo Jimenez to prove it.

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