It's time for the Orioles to bite the bullet on Ubaldo Jimenez.
No, not that bullet. This isn't about giving up on Jimenez during the first year of a four-year, $50 million contract because he can't consistently find the strike zone and has been taking a spot in the rotation from a more effective starting pitcher. It's about making a tough short-term decision to keep the first-place Orioles well out in front of the pack in the American League East.
Jimenez, at his best, could be the key to a deep playoff run, so it's logical for Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette to want him ready to head into October on the same kind of September roll that made him the AL Pitcher of the Month for the Cleveland Indians last year. The trick is getting him into September and getting him right without sacrificing any the cushion the Orioles have built in the standings.
Orioles fans couldn't have been happy when the club optioned Miguel Gonzalez to Triple-A Norfolk on Aug. 9 to bring Jimenez back from the disabled list, and they had every right to wonder how the club could justify sending out a guy who had averaged nearly seven innings and just 1.8 earned runs in his last six major league starts.
The answer, of course, is complicated. The reason Gonzalez was chosen was because of where his spot in the rotation came up in relation to the day that Jimenez came off the DL and the fact that he was optionable. The Orioles' only options with Jimenez are to start him or hide him in the bullpen until the roster limit expands Sept. 1 to 40 players.
Showalter understandably does not like to play short in the bullpen, and you have to believe that using the highest-paid pitcher in club history as a long reliever is not going to be popular with an owner who Showalter and Duquette had to talk into overcoming his long-held reluctance to offering free-agent pitchers guaranteed contracts of more than three years. There just isn't any other reasonable alternative.
There's no reason to believe that Jimenez will be any more consistent as a reliever than he has been in the rotation, but it's not about that. It's about buying time and — if the Orioles can extend their seven-game division lead — having the luxury of starting Jimenez and trying to get him fixed during the final weeks of the season while giving the other starters a little extra rest to stay fresh.
Signing Jimenez in February seemed like a great idea at the time, and it certainly energized a fan base that didn't believe the team was willing to spend that kind of money. But it was based on the presumption that he had figured something out last September and was ready to take his place among the league's top pitchers.
In reality, Jimenez has historically been a slow starter, but his best months generally have been June and July. He has a winning career record in September (15-13), but didn't until his 4-0 record and 1.09 ERA in that month last year brought his overall ERA (3.30) back down to the point where it reminded people of his terrific 2010 season in Colorado (19-8, 2.88 ERA). In between and since, he has pitched to a 32-48 record and a 4.75 ERA.
The Orioles are all in with Jimenez, so they need to do whatever they can to get him to a point where he might be able help at the end of this season. But they cannot do that at the expense of the pennant race. Jimenez is a smart guy, and he probably has figured that out already. Showalter hinted Sunday in Cleveland that he already has come to that conclusion.
Jimenez has good stuff and is successful when he commands his fastball. His herky-jerky mechanics keep him from doing that consistently, so it's up to pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti to tweak his delivery and hope he finds that elusive command that made him so dominating at about this time last year.
Maybe pitching out of the bullpen in nonpressure situations will help.
So far, nothing else has.