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Prospect Retro: Ubaldo Jimenez

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Here is a look at Colorado Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez, who I feel is one of the underrated talents of the National League.

Ubaldo Jimenez was signed by the Rockies as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2001. He made his North American debut for Casper in the Pioneer League in 2002, posting an ugly 6.53 ERA in 62 innings and allowing 72 hits, but with a 65/29 K/BB ratio. Scouting reports pointed to a 93-95 MPH fastball, but his secondary stuff needed a lot of work. I gave him a Grade C in the 2003 book, noting that he was "a name with a fastball attached" but that he needed to be watched.

Jimenez took a huge step forward in 2003, posting a 10-6, 3.46 record for Asheville in the South Atlantic League, with a 138/67 K/BB ratio and just 129 hits allowed in 154 innings. His velocity actually went down slightly, to 89-93 MPH, but his breaking ball improved greatly and he showed more ability to pitch rather than throw. I gave him a strong Grade B in the 2004 book, writing that "further improvement will make him an elite prospect."

Moved up to the California League for 2004, Jimenez was limited to just nine starts and 44 innings by a fractured throwing shoulder blade. When on the mound, he was outstanding, posting a 2.23 ERA with a 61/12 K/BB, allowing a mere 29 hits. Scouts reported that his velocity picked back up into the 93-95 MPH range, that his curveball was even better than in '03, he added a tighter slider, and that his changeup showed improvement. Obviously the statistics were outstanding, but I was concerned enough about the injury to leave him with a Grade B rating. I noted that the grade would rise if he proved healthy in '05.

Jimenez began '05 back in the California League for Modesto, posting a 3.98 ERA with a 78/40 K/BB in 72 innings with 61 hits allowed, not up to the standards he established at Visalia. Promoted to Double-A Tulsa, he had serious command problems in the second half, posting a 5.34 ERA with a 53/31 K/BB in 63 innings, allowing 58 hits but with 12 homers given up. Interestingly, his velocity improved, hitting 96-98 MPH at times. The curveball, slider, and changeup continued to develop in terms of movement quality, but his command went backwards and scouts said he was often overthrowing. I kept him with a Grade B rating in the 2006 book.

2006 began with a return engagement at Double-A Tulsa, where Jimenez posted a 9-2, 2.45 record in 13 starts with an 86/40 K/BB ratio, allowing just 49 hits in 73 innings. Promoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs, he posted a 5.06 ERA in 13 starts with a 64/43 K/BB in 78 innings, 74 hits allowed. The scouting reports remained stable: 95-97 MPH fastball, with a breaking ball and changeup that all had plus moments, but held back by inconsistent command. Once again I gave him a Grade B in the '07 book, writing that if Jimenez improved his command, he could be a Freddy Garcia type, but that if his command remained shaky he could be like Daniel Cabrera or, worse, Denny Bautista.

Jimenez split '07 between Colorado Springs (5.85 ERA, 89/62 K/BB in 103 innings, 110 hits) and Colorado. He was actually more effective in the majors than he was in Triple-A, posting a 4.28 ERA with a 68/37 K/BB in 82 innings with 70 hits allowed. He had a solid season in 08, then an even better campaign in '09, with improved K/IP and K/BB ratios last year including a substantial lowering of his walk rate. The stuff is first class and matches what he showed in the minors: 93-97 MPH fastball, peaking at 100 according to fangraphs. Fangraphs rates the fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup all positively.

Ubaldo has obviously exceeded the pessimistic Bautista and Cabrera outcomes. How does the Freddy Garcia comp work? Jimenez has posted a 3.80 ERA, 122 ERA+ in his first 506 innings, with a 441/228 K/BB, 440 hits allowed, 3.80 FIP, 7.84 K/9, 4.06 BB/9. Freddy Garcia at the same stage of his career (564 innings through his first two and a half seasons) had a 3.61 ERA, 127 ERA+, with a 412/223 K/BB, 516 hits allowed, 4.07 FIP, 6.57 K/9, 3.56 BB/9. They are fairly close on ERA, but Garcia had both fewer strikeouts and better command at the same stage. PECOTA comps aren't out yet for 2010, but I do note on last year's list that both Daniel Cabrera and Garcia made appearances. So did Jim Clancy, A.J. Burnett, Ron Darling, and Mark Gubicza. Burnett is the current Number One on the Sim Score list.

In my opinion, Jimenez has the stuff to be a number one starter, and if he continues to make progress with his command he'll have some exceptional seasons. The Colorado environment hasn't seemed to hurt him much, and at age 26 he is past the traditional injury nexus. Jimenez was especially sharp in the second half last year (1.12 WHIP in his last 15 starts, 3.08 ERA). If that trend continues, and if he gets proper support from his teammates, he could contend for a Cy Young award sometime soon.

Jimenez always showed excellent stuff in the minors, but was held back by spotty command at times. Scouts love dreaming on guys like that, and in his case he's been able to live up to the potential.