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Free Agent Faceoff Rumors
Yesterday, I took a side-by-side look at right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana, asking MLBTR readers who they preferred between the prominent early-30s hurlers, as each has seen his free agent stock weighed down by draft pick compensation. Today, let's take a look at another pair of players who are languishing on the free agent market due to their ties to draft pick compensation: Nelson Cruz and Kendrys Morales.
While Cruz, unlike Morales, is an outfielder by trade, neither is known as a solid defensive player. Rather, each is valued primarily for his bat, and teams/fans can make the case that each is best suited for a DH role at this point in his career (the players and their agents, of course, would strongly disagree).
Cruz, 33, entered the offseason as one of the top right-handed power bats on the open market — a rare trait among free agents. No remaining free agent, not even Morales, can claim to match Cruz's power. He batted .266/.327/.506 with 27 homers in 2013 in just 109 games (446 plate appearances). However, the reason for the shortened campaign wasn't injury, but rather a 50-game suspension for his ties to the Biogenesis PED scandal. Cruz can argue that he's served his time and state that his violations took place in 2012 (via the L.A. Times' Mike DiGiovanna) as he recovered from a rare illness that caused him to lose roughly 40 pounds, thereby indicating that his 2013 numbers were legitimate. Interested teams don't appear as likely to write off the suspension, however.
Morales comes with his own baggage, though his in the form of injury history. The 30-year-old switch-hitter fractured his leg in 2010 while celebrating a walk-off grand slam and missed the better part of two seasons recovering from that freak accident. Morales has posted solid offensive numbers since returning (.275/.329/.457), but his production hasn't come close to matching that which he showed in 2009-10 (.303/.353/.548 in 203 games) prior to his injury.
Neither player is considered much of a defender, though Morales is limited to first base while Cruz can man a corner outfield spot, even if defensive metrics don't speak highly of his outfield play. Even at his best, Morales' isolated power (slugging minus batting average) from 2009-10 was .246 — roughly the same as the .241 mark Cruz has averaged over the past six years. However, Morales is a switch-hitter who strikes out far less often and is also three years younger than Cruz. He's also succeeded in pitcher-friendly environments, whereas Cruz's .912 OPS at Rangers Ballpark dwarfs his career road mark of .734.
Clearly, each player has some flaws. Cruz likely offers more power and can be played a more valuable defensive position, but he's older, strikes out more and comes with troubling home/road splits. Morales has yet to prove that he can replicate his monster 2009 season, and he's even more defensively limited than Cruz, as all but 31 of his games last season came as a DH. Either would bolster the majority of Major League lineups, but (assuming both would fit on your team) if you had to choose just one…
Now that both Masahiro Tanaka and Matt Garza are off the market, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez are widely considered the top two starters in free agency. Some may argue in favor of Bronson Arroyo as well, but given the lack of draft pick compensation and his age relative to Santana and Jimenez, Arroyo figures to have a different market than the pair of early-30s Dominican right-handers.
Santana turned 31 in December and enjoyed an excellent rebound campaign with Royals in 2013 after he was acquired in a salary dump trade with the Angels. Similarly, Jimenez, who turned 30 last week, rebounded from a disastrous 18-month stretch that saw him post an ERA north of 5.00 and caused many fans around the game label him a lost cause.
Jimenez is more of a strikeout pitcher than Santana but also comes with worse control, as reflected in his 9.6 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9 rates in 2013. While he was once an extreme ground-ball pitcher, Jimenez turned in a slightly below-league-average mark of 43.9 percent in 2013 (44.5 percent was average). Santana, meanwhile, relied on pristine command but picked up strike three far less often than Jimenez. He averaged nearly three full strikeouts fewer than Jimenez on a per-nine-inning basis (6.9) but walked just 2.2 hitters per nine. His ground-ball rate has trended upward over the past three seasons, culminating in a career-best 46.2 percent in 2013.
However, the pair shares some similarities as well. For one, Santana and Jimenez have displayed durability, averaging 200 and 198 innings per season, respectively, dating back to 2008. And, despite the different ways in which they've prevented runs, they've done so at nearly an identical rate. Dating back to that same 2008 season, Jimenez's 3.90 ERA is just a hair lower than Santana's 3.93 ERA. Both have experienced significant swings in that time, and that inconsistency has played a part in the fact that they remain on the free agent market on Jan. 27.
Also playing a part has been the lengthy Tanaka saga and the fact that each hurler will require forfeiture of a draft pick. Despite strong rebound campaigns for each, neither pitcher has seen his market develop much. That figures to change in the next month, and the debate among pundits as to which pitcher is the better investment for a team in need of pitching will likely produce arguments for both sides. With all that said, let's see what the MLBTR readership has to say about this pair of high-upside but relatively inconsistent pitchers.
As usual, there are multiple MLB teams that could look to upgrade their backstops. The Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Phillies, among others, will enter the off-season unsettled behind the dish. Teams such as those might chase the consistent power and presence of Brian McCann, or the emergent bat and youth of Jarrod Saltalamacchia. But both players look to be in line for multiple years and tens of millions of dollars.
So, let's say your team misses on McCann and Salty. Or, perhaps, it isn't willing to roll the dice on the former's balky shoulder or the latter's sudden breakout. Or maybe it sees value further down the market, among a couple of aging veterans who might just have some life left.
The next two catchers on the list, Carlos Ruiz of the Phillies and A.J. Pierzynski of the Rangers, have both passed the midway point of their fourth decades. Neither figures to command more than two years, if that, and should be had for a reasonable annual salary. And while neither probably has the on-field upside of McCann or Saltalamacchia entering 2014, each may well have more value upside and is nearly certain to carry less risk. But which is a better target? That question warrants another Free Agent Faceoff.
Fortunately, the task of evaluating these two catchers is made easier by the profiles that MLBTR recently published. Tim Dierkes analyzed the 35-year-old Ruiz, pointing to the rather remarkable .303/.388/.454 triple-slash that he posted over the 2010-12 seasons. Though he came out of the gate poorly this year after missing time due to a suspension for Adderall, over the last two months of 2013 he hit much like the Chooch of old. Ruiz is only one year removed from a 4.5 rWAR/5.2 fWAR campaign, though he has experienced a series of minor injuries over the last few years and may not be capable of manning a truly full-time load behind the plate.
Pierzynski, who was profiled by Steve Adams, has never had a year quite like Ruiz's 2012, but could be viewed as a safer, sturdier choice. As Adams notes, the 36-year-old has been incredibly durable, averaging over 130 annual games with the gear on for over a decade. And he is still hitting a ton of long balls for a catcher, though he rarely draws walks. Pierzynski is one of the least-liked opponents in the game, but then again he has drawn his fair share of praise from teammates. And even after putting up better numbers than did Ruiz in 2013 (94 OPS+ versus 90 OPS+), he might well come cheaper.
Whether by choice or by way of backup plan, which veteran backstop would you prefer to ink this off-season?
For tonight's Free Agent Faceoff entry, we'll take a look at Scott Feldman and Paul Maholm. As two soft-tossers with below-average strikeout rates, they're likely to draw interest from NL clubs who're looking for an extra piece to fill out a rotation.
The Cubs likely targeted Feldman last winter as a pitcher whose strikeout and walk rates were on the upswing in recent years despite inconsistent results. In 2012, he struck out nearly seven batters per nine innings and walked just 2.3 per nine while being shuttled between the rotation and the bullpen. SIERA suggested his ERA should have been somewhere in the range of 3.95, but he ended the season with a mark of 5.09. Dropped into the Cubs' rotation in 2013, Feldman rewarded the team with 91 quality innings before being flipped to Baltimore in July, and he remained relatively effective in the AL East despite seeing his strikeouts tick down and his walk rate rise. It added up to a 181 2/3-inning, 3.86 ERA campaign for Feldman that likely ranks as his best major league season thus far. While his strikeout rate remained below average for a starter, Feldman continued to avoid excessive walks this season, and also saw his groundball rate shoot up to 49.6 percent, easily the highest rate of his career among years in which he's worked mostly out of the rotation.
Maholm also doesn't rely on the strikeout, but he's much more ground-ball oriented than Feldman. Only once has his ground ball rate fallen below 50 percent in a season, and he's averaged 52.1 percent for his career. Those grounders are his meat and potatoes, as he's averaging just a 6.4 per nine strikeout rate over the last two seasons and a solid, but not excellent, walk rate of 2.6 per nine. He also relies heavily on neutralizing lefties, who've managed just a .220/.287/.318 line against him for his career, while righties have fared much better at .286/.353/.447. That's generally been a recipe for success for Maholm, whose ERA climbed to 4.41 in 2013 but was 3.66 over the 2011 to 2012 seasons. His 2013 innings total, 153, was his lowest since his first full season in 2006, with a wrist sprain and elbow inflammation causing him to miss time. However, he's generally been a durable pitcher, as he's never failed to complete 150 innings in a season and has reached the 180-inning plateau three times in the last five years.
In Feldman and Maholm, we have two pitchers who have achieved some success despite living below the 90 MPH mark with their fastballs. Feldman will turn 31 in February, and averaged 89.9 MPH with his heater last season. Maholm will turn 32 during the 2014 season and is a bit behind Feldman on fastball velocity, averaging 87.5 MPH in 2013, but he's also been much more effective at generating ground balls over his career. Who would you rather have?
This edition of MLBTR's Free Agent Faceoff will examine a pair of veteran right-handers coming off strong seasons that can potentially be had on a one-year deal in 2014 — Hiroki Kuroda and A.J. Burnett.
Kuroda, who turns 39 in Februrary, is coming off a second consecutive impressive season in the AL East. In spite of the hitters' paradise that is Yankee Stadium, Kuroda has posted strong — and nearly identical — seasons in 2012-13. Over that time, he's posted a 3.31 ERA with 6.8 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9, though his innings total in 2013 fell from 219 2/3 to 201 1/3. Kuroda has stranded runners at a rate that's well above the league average for each of the past three seasons, helping him to outperform some of his peripheral stats. Averaging between 91-92 mph on his fastball, Kuroda sits slightly above the league average in swinging-strike rate but relies more on his pristine command and plus ground-ball rate for success. In 2013, his splitter produced a 70.2 percent ground-ball rate, and his overall ground-ball rate from 2012-13 is a healthy 49.5 percent. Kuroda is very durable and hasn't been on the disabled list since 2009.
Burnett is two years younger than Kuroda, as he's set to turn 37 in January. Unlike Kuroda, Burnett relies heavily on the strikeout, having racked up 389 punchouts in 393 1/3 innings over the past two seasons. His 3.41 ERA since 2012 is very similar to Kuroda's, though doesn't have the same command; Burnett has walked three batters per nine innings over the past two seasons and was at 3.2 in 2013. He misses more bats (10.6% swinging-strike rate in 2013 compared to Kuroda's 9.9) and throws a bit harder (92.5 mph), relying on a curveball as his out pitch. Burnett is no slouch with ground-balls either and is actually at nearly 57 percent in that department since joining the Bucs. He missed four weeks with a calf strain this summer.
Both right-handers are getting up there in years, but both are clearly still effective. While some might prefer Burnett's relative youth and his swing-and-miss arsenal to Kuroda's sharper command, Kuroda's supporters will point to the fact that he's succeeding in one of the game's toughest divisions and toughest parks for pitchers. There's the possibility, of course, that one or both of these pitchers will retire this offseason. For the purposes of this post, let's assume that's not the case and ask the question…
For tonight's Free Agent Faceoff entry, we'll look at Matt Garza and Masahiro Tanaka. Teams can be relatively sure of what they'd be getting by signing the former, while the latter has both boom and bust potential.
Garza, 29, has been an above-average starter since his second season with Minnesota in 2007, as he hasn't posted an ERA above 3.95 since his rookie campaign. While he's not a strikeout machine, he gets more than his fair share of Ks – his punchout rates have consistently been above the league average for starters, and that didn't change this season, when he racked up 7.9 per nine innings. Garza appeared to ascend to another level in 2011, when he set a career high in K/9 and also boosted his ground ball rate. However, after struggling with injuries in 2012, he's settled back into being the good, but not great, pitcher that he's been for the majority of his career – a guy who has strikeout stuff and walks fewer batters than the average starter, but also gets a below-average amount of ground balls.
Tanaka is expected to make the jump to MLB this winter after dominating Japanese baseball to the tune of a 1.24 ERA in 181 innings this season. The fact that much of his success comes from limiting walks – his BB/9 in Japan this year is 1.3, and he posted an insane rate of 1.0 per nine last season – is likely to give some teams pause. Two recent Japanese imports, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, both saw their walk rates spike dramatically when squaring off against major league hitters. And while he's generated plenty of Ks in Japan, his 2013 K/9 of 7.7 suggests his stuff isn't on the same level as Darvish's, as the latter pitcher was striking out almost 11 batters per nine innings by the time he was ready to migrate to the states. Nevertheless, the reports that we've gotten from Baseball America's Ben Badler on Tanaka's arsenal – a low-90s fastball and two plus secondary offerings, including what is "arguably the best splitter in the world" – suggest that the team who ultimately signs him may be snaring a frontline starter. At 24, he's also much younger than Garza.
While signing a free agent starter to a long-term deal is an inherently risky move, Garza is a good bet to provide a team with many quality major league innings. In contrast, as a Japanese pitcher, Tanaka is largely an unknown quantity – Daisuke Matsuzaka has struggled mightily in the U.S., while Darvish is currently among the most valuable starters in baseball. Who would you rather have?
Kazmir emerged from obscurity this season to put together a respectable 4.14-ERA, 152-inning campaign for the Indians. That ERA wasn't a fluke, as Kazmir also posted a K/9 of 8.9 and a BB/9 of 2.7. The second figure is particularly impressive, as it's easily the lowest of Kazmir's career. As a left-hander who misses bats, suppresses walks and averages 92.1 mph on his fastball, Kazmir would potentially be in line for a multi-year deal with annual eight-digit salaries if he had a stronger recent track record. However, around this time last year, Kazmir was pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters in independent ball. He also struggled with efficiency throughout the season, averaging less than six innings per start.
There was talk earlier in the year of a qualifying offer for Hughes, but that possibility has evaporated after another disappointing season for the 6' 5", 240-pound right-hander. In a final line that's perhaps representative of his checkered career, Hughes posted a 5.19 ERA in 145 2/3 innings despite a 2.88 K/BB ratio that places him in the same range as starters such as Derek Holland and James Shields. As has often been the case for Hughes, otherwise good results were dragged down by an inability to keep the ball in the park. Hughes posted a 1.48 HR/9 this year, ranking among the league leaders. Given his natural fly-ball tendencies (career 33.6 percent GB rate), a team with a more spacious ballpark than Yankee Stadium could target Hughes as a buy-low candidate.
The major knock on Kazmir is the bizarre trajectory his career has taken. There's just not many comparables for the 29-year-old, a former top young starter who appeared to be out of baseball but re-emerged this season to post a 3.36 K/BB ratio in 152 innings. Hughes, 27, has always inspired optimism, but he's never developed into the dominant starting pitcher that many projected based on his size and stuff.
In this installment of the Free Agent Faceoff series, we look at two aging, but powerful, outfielders in Nelson Cruz and Carlos Beltran. Both players provide poor defense but good bats in a market that has only a handful of the latter.
Cruz is currently serving the tail end of a 50-game suspension for his role in the Biogenesis scandal, working out in Arizona in preparation to potentially rejoin the Rangers for the playoffs if they happen to win one of the Wild Card spots. Cruz is very limited defensively, which explains how he has posted just 1.3, 1.1 and 1.6 fWAR the past three seasons. Still, his bat can provide a big boost, and the Rangers' struggles since his suspension may show how important his hitting was to their lineup — Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently went so far as to say that Cruz has "killed" the Rangers with his absence (which might be an exaggeration, given that Alex Rios has filled in capably since Cruz's suspension). Cruz is set to hit the free agent market after coming to the end of a two-year, $16MM deal with the Rangers that bought out his last two arbitration seasons.
At 36, Beltran is three years older than Cruz, but he has a similar profile, in that his still-excellent offense is increasingly offset by his defense, resulting this season in a pedestrian 1.7 fWAR despite a .297/.337/.491 batting line. That rather low fWAR may have at least something to do with variance in single-season defensive statistics, but Beltran has fallen far down the defensive spectrum, and at his age, his defensive numbers might not get more than a dead-cat bounce. Beltran is finishing out a two-year, $26MM contract with the Cardinals. He'll aim to play at least a few more seasons, and hopefully give himself a clear shot at Hall of Fame induction in the process.
At this point in their careers, both players would probably be best suited for situations in which they can play DH at least a couple times a week. Beltran would have rejected that possibility two years ago, saying in 2011 that he wanted to remain in the National League so he could avoid the DH. We'll see if he retains that stance next offseason. Still, if nothing else, both have middle-of-the-lineup bats. Leaving aside the consideration of qualifying offers (Beltran might well get one, and we'll see about Cruz), which player would you rather have?
Heading into the offseason, we can be sure of seeing the usual collection of low-risk deals for formerly marquee free-agent starting pitchers. Last winter, the Pirates struck gold with a one-year, incentive-laden deal for Francisco Liriano, as he's generated 3.0 fWAR this season while making just $1MM. Though they'll require larger commitments, two starters hitting the free agent market this offseason, Josh Johnson and Roy Halladay, offer similar ace potential and are also likely to be had relatively cheaply. They're up next in our Free Agent Faceoff series.
When I asked last week in a poll, just 29 percent of you said the Blue Jays should extend Johnson a qualifying offer this offseason after an injury-marred 2013. This season was certainly a disappointing one for the right-hander, as his 6.20 ERA was the worst of his career if you ignore 2007, when he threw just 15 2/3 innings. However, I made the case that Johnson was among the most unlucky starters in baseball this season, as 18.5 percent of his fly balls went for home runs. That's likely to fall, as it's double his career mark of 8.2 percent. When Johnson's healthy, he can be as dominant as any starter in baseball, as his lifetime 3.40 ERA attests to. He's just rarely healthy for a full season. Any acquiring team will hope that the 29-year-old can recapture some of his 2010 magic, when he managed an acceptable 183 2/3 innings and led the NL in ERA.
Halladay's 2013 mark of 6.71 ERA in 61 2/3 innings was one of several troubling statistics for the right-hander in 2013, a year that also saw his average two-seam fastball velocity fall to just 88.7 mph. That's a concerning figure for a 36-year-old who missed significant time with a shoulder injury. Halladay's 5.0 BB/9 rate and 1.8 HR/9 rate were also his highest since 2000, when he was in his early 20s. At this point in Halladay's career, we may just be seeing the decline of a pitcher whose right arm logged more than 1,400 innings over a six-year period from 2006-2011. However, there's also no ignoring the fact that he has two Cy Young Awards to his name. If Halladay can prove that he's healthy, that sterling resume is sure to loom large in the evaluation process for many clubs.
In Johnson and Halladay, we have two starters who succumbed to injuries in 2013 but are likely to draw significant interest as former top-of-the-rotation starters. Johnson has dominated in the past when healthy, and though he hasn't had the career Halladay has, he has youth on his side at age 29. Halladay is a much older 36, but he was also among the best pitchers in baseball over that 2006-2011 span. Who would you rather have?
For today's installment of MLBTR's Free Agent Faceoff series, we'll look at a couple of former aces, both 29-year-old righties, whose careers have followed a similar trajectory over the last few years: Tim Lincecum and Ubaldo Jimenez.
These guys were once expected to headline this year's free agent class. Over the 2009-10 seasons, Lincecum (11.7 fWAR) and Jimenez (12.1 fWAR) were among the ten most productive pitchers in the game. In 2011, they took a step back but were still solid: looking past their divergent ERA figures (2.74 for Lincecum; 4.68 for Jimenez), both posted fWAR tallies in the mid-3's. Last year, the wheels fell off. The two combined for just one win above replacement.
The 2013 season has seen partial resurrections for both pitchers. Certainly, neither will hit the market as an ace. But both bring high strikeout rates and durability to the table. Since 2008, neither hurler has failed to make at least thirty starts. Of course, that statistic also implies mileage: Lincecum has logged over 1400, and Jimenez just shy of 1300, career innings. But these one-time stars should generate a lot of interest in a pitching market largely bereft of top-level talent. Let's take a closer look:
At first glance, Lincecum's 2013 season looks like a marginal improvement on 2012, and in some ways it is: he is carrying just a 4.44 ERA in 190 2/3 innings, and his strikeouts are down (though so are his walks). On the other hand, Lincecum's year looks much better in the eyes of advanced metrics: his FIP (3.77), xFIP (3.57), and SIERA (3.75) are all better than his 2013 ERA as well as his 2012 marks. Broadly, Lincecum seems to have figured out how to be successful — albeit not dominant — with less overwhelming stuff. As Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com writes, Lincecum is a more mature pitcher now.
Though Lincecum's fastball velocity dipped in 2010, it took a more remarkable downturn between 2011 (92.2 MPH) and 2012 (90.4 MPH). Not coincidentally, perhaps, his offspeed offerings (slider, curve, change up) all registered negative pitch values last year. Lincecum's change, in particular, went from being his best pitch to his worst, as he was seemingly unable or unwilling to pound the zone low-and-away with the offering. He has apparently re-learned how to use his slow ball in 2013, to improved results. Though Lincecum no longer looks like a top-tier pitcher, he proved this season that he can still dial it up at times (as in his no-hitter) and, perhaps more importantly, that he should be a reliable rotation piece.
Likewise, Jimenez entered the year with real questions about whether or not he would continue to be a guy that a team felt comfortable trotting out every fifth day. As with Lincecum, he has in large part answered those questions. MLBTR's Steve Adams just profiled Jimenez, who is likely to exercise his right to void the $8MM club option that the Indians hold on him for 2014. As Adams noted, Jimenez has produced excellent results at the right time: he sports a 2.72 ERA and 2.31 K:BB ratio over his last 145 2/3 innings, and has restored his ground-ball rate to his career levels. Though advanced metrics do not quite support his cumulative 3.39 ERA on the year, neither do they undermine his usefulness: Jimenez sports a 3.62 FIP, 3.77 xFIP, and 3.88 SIERA.
Even moreso than Lincecum, Jimenez has dealt with a drastic velocity decline. His fastball, which once sat at 96, dropped to a 93.9 MPH average in 2011 and then fell off a table last year to 92.5 MPH. In reponse to his poor results in 2012, Jimenez made adjustments to his repertoire. He has continued to increase the usage of his change-up ever since his speed started to dip, and now throws it 20.2% of the time. More importantly, perhaps, Jimenez has largely abandoned his curve (3.7%) for his slider (22.3%), a big swing from his previous pitch mix. While I cannot make a full case for causation, the slider has the highest pitch value of any of Jimenez's offerings in 2013. Whatever the reason, Jimenez has restored his ability to generate swings and misses (8.8% SwStr% in 2013 vs. 7.0% in 2012), reduced his home run tendencies (0.85 vs. 1.27 HR/9), and restored his K:BB ratio to his prime levels (2.29 vs. 1.51 K:BB) while carrying a career-best 9.23 K/9.
Lincecum and Jimenez both have approximately the same age and arm mileage, and have posted similar underlying skill metrics in 2013. The Giants star has had greater highs and less-pronounced lows in his career than his counterpart in Cleveland, but in 2013 Jimenez actually increased his strikeout capabilities and outpaced Lincecum in fWAR (2.6 vs. 1.5). So, which one would you prefer your team target?