The free-agent pitchers in the market who have declined a qualifying offer are Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ervin Santana. Garza has had some recent injury history so putting him in a Blue Jays uniform may not be the best idea, Santana will get a contract that is much too long, and Kuroda is 38 years old. So if the Blue Jays are looking for a starter through free agency, Ubaldo Jimenez would be my choice.
Jimenez is a 29-year-old right-handed pitcher who has most recently pitched for the Cleveland Indians after starting his career with the Colorado Rockies. From 2008, when he first became a full-time starter for the Rockies, to 2010, Jimenez recorded ERA-'s of 86, 75, and 63 (ERA- is adjusted for the ballpark and league, thus correcting for Denver's altitude effects, where 100 is league average and lower number is better.) In 2011, he recorded a pretty average 102 ERA- in his time with the Rockies, but things really went south after his trade to the Indians at the deadline, finishing the season to the tune of a 130 ERA-. He gave up seven homers in 11 games for the Tribe that season, compared to the 10 he gave up the prior season. His 2012 season was worse: he went 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA, his 137- gave him the fourth-worst mark among qualified pitcher in the league, and his fWAR put him third-worst (with Ervin Santana earning the bottom spot back then).
But, unlike Ricky Romero, who ranked around him in 2012, Jimenez had a bounce back season in 2013 starting at the end of April. After giving up seven runs in back-to-back starts and then another where he gave up four in five innings, Jimenez realized that losing was not fun and decided to start pitching well again.
First, let’s take a look at what went wrong in Jimenez’s down years. He came into the league as a fireballer, averaging 96-97 mph on his four-seam fastball through 2010, but then he lost a lot of zip after 2010, with his average fastball velocity sitting at 93-94 mph since 2011. For a guy who got batters out by making them swing and miss on his heaters, the loss of 3 mph was quite significant. The switch to the American League probably didn’t help the cause. In 2012 his strikeout rate (K%) dropped significantly, while his HR/9 skyrocketed as he turned from a pitcher who got batters to hit ground balls half of the time to giving up much harder-hit balls.
Data courtesy FanGraphs.
However, Jimenez managed to change something this past season to get his peripherals close to where they were back in his heyday (his walk rate has always been on the high side). His fastball took another step back (averaged 92 mph in 2013), but he managed adapt to his new limitations partly by changing his mechanics, something that Jeff Sullivan wrote about earlier this summer. According to Let's Go Tribe, the change in mechanics happened last offseason at the behest of Terry Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway. He is still giving up fewer grounders and more fly balls than he used to, which is a bit of a concern for someone who would pitch in the Rogers Centre. Jimenez will not go as deep into games as his All-Star season in 2010, but he has avoided serious injuries, having started at least 31 games since 2008.
I am optimistic that when we look back at Ubaldo Jimenez's career when he retires, we see that 2012 was the blip on the radar. No one can expect that Jimenez will perform at the 2009-2010 level in 2014 and going forward, but he will be a more-than-serviceable strikeout pitcher in the Blue Jays' rotation. If nothing else, his signing would mean more free pizzas for fans who go down to Rogers Centre.
It is a risk for sure, but it is partly because of his recent struggles that brings Jimenez down to affordable territory. Another reason why he cannot command an outrageous contract is that the Indians extended him a qualifying offer, meaning most teams would have to surrender a first-round pick for his services. Because the Blue Jays have two protected first-round picks next season, they only have to surrender a second-rounder, allowing them (and the Indians and the nine other teams with protected picks) to give up less value than the rest of the league.
MLB Trade Rumors ranked him 11th (and incidentally, predicts that he would sign in Toronto) and predicted that he would get a four-year, $52 million contract. I think that is a very fair offer for someone with Jimenez's upside--I would even consider upping that to give him a $13.5 or $14 million average annual salary if he needs it to sign. Maybe throw a team option for 2018 for good measure. Toronto desperately needs a durable above-average starter, and Jimenez can provide that fit at a reasonable price.