Antonetti wants to win now, and proves it
Indians GM pulls off blockbuster trade, brings in Ubaldo
CLEVELAND -- I keep thinking back to what Chris Antonetti told me just the other day, probably as the Ubaldo Jimenez talks with the Rockies were heating up.We were talking about that purported "Plan" the Indians were expected to be enslaved to. Nobody realistically expected the Tribe to sell off the long-term to address the short. Nobody expected this small-market club with so little wiggle room to dangle the likes of Drew Pomeranz and Alex White -- the consolation prizes for past seasons gone awry -- to support a 2011 club that has shocked the baseball world merely by playing somewhere in the neighborhood of .500 baseball. That's when Antonetti said something interesting. "Let's not be mistaken," he told me. "'The Plan' is to win games, get into the postseason and win a championship. Nobody's smart enough to know when factors will line up to have those opportunities. We have an opportunity in front of us to potentially reach the postseason. We don't take those opportunities lightly." Apparently not. We can say this much in the wake of the Jimenez blockbuster: Antonetti has officially made his mark on this organization. After nine years spent as Mark Shapiro's assistant, Antonetti was expected to be the bearer of business as usual at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario when he took over the GM reins last fall. But there is nothing usual about this Trade Deadline stunner. An Indians club that has long articulated the necessity of stockpiling "waves of arms" down on the farm in order to sustain championship-caliber baseball in a shrinking market has suddenly sold off its two most prominent pitching prospects in Pomeranz and White, as well as right-hander Joe Gardner and first baseman/outfielder Matt McBride, for two years and two months of a guy who was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Fourteen months ago. Jimenez, 27, may very well be the proven front-line starter the Indians have lacked since they shipped off consecutive Cy Young winners in CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in 2008 and '09. Or he might be damaged goods, a flash that didn't last. Truth is, nobody knows at this point, because for what amounts to a full season now, Jimenez has provided Fausto Carmona-like confusion in Colorado, brilliant in some spurts, baffling in others. Antonetti's betting on brilliance, and it's a huge gamble. Not just because Jimenez still has plenty to prove, but because this Indians team at large is no sure thing, either. After a 30-15 start that woke up a slumbering and suffering fan base, the Indians have gone 23-36 in the time since, one of the worst records in the game in that stretch. They have seen two of their best hitters, Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo, hit the disabled list, and an overachieving offense catch the bus back to earth. The starting staff has the 11th-best ERA in the 14-team AL, and even that is better than most anticipated going into the year. Kosuke Fukudome was reeled in from the Cubs to provide some on-base ability to the outfield alignment, and, if rumblings are to be relied upon, Ryan Ludwick might be brought back in the hope he can provide some thump. But Ubaldo is the big fish, the answer to all those who clamored for this club to make a major move. And no matter how this move shakes out, it's going to have major implications on the Indians for years to come. What are the Indians getting in Jimenez? Well, let's start by saying it's definitely a question. Entering his bizarre one-inning outing against the Padres on Saturday night (and for our purposes, we'll choose to ignore that disaster, given that it came amid the swirling rumors), Jimenez was 6-9 with a 4.20 ERA in 20 starts. His ballpark-adjusted ERA was 107, or just above league average. He had four starts in which he allowed five earned runs or more, 11 in which he allowed two or fewer. These are the numbers of a good, not great, asset. The uplifting news is that Ubaldo has been at his best since June 1, going 6-4 with a 3.03 ERA in that stretch, but the bad news is that he's yet to find the form that made him such an overpowering presence in the first half of 2010. Remember that first half? Jimenez was literally unhittable one memorable night against the Braves and virtually unhittable every other time he took the mound. He went 15-1 through July 8, posting a 2.20 ERA, a .198 batting average against and .582 OPS against. These were just silly, silly statistics. From July 19 on? Not so silly. Jimenez went 4-7 with a much-more-pedestrian but still-respectable 3.80 ERA. He also managed to allow just a .223 average and .644 OPS against. So, to review, what we have here is a guy who absolutely dazzled for a short stretch. A very short stretch, in reality. And in the time since -- perhaps as a result of the injuries he's endured (hip flexor, groin and thumb cuticle), the thin Colorado air, the adjustments made against him or some combination of the three -- he's been human as can be. Jimenez's overall 2011 numbers are tainted by his 6.75 ERA in April, his 5.45 ERA in May and his 5.55 ERA at home (vs. a 2.83 mark elsewhere), but he's also famously lost a couple ticks on his fastball. Because of his past glories and his team-friendly contract ($2.8 million this year, $4.2 million in 2012, $5.75 million team option in 2013), it's obvious why a guy like Jimenez would appeal to a team like the Indians, even though his 2014 option can be voided by the pitcher as a result of this trade. But at the same time, the question begs to be asked: Why was he so readily available? It's rare for a club to give up on its homegrown ace at such a juncture. Even when the Indians tried to sell high with Cliff Lee, they did so a year and two months ahead of his free-agent alarm going off, not three years and two months. It's also amazing to see the Indians so willingly ship away two highly regarded arms in White and Pomeranz. These guys were the future, the reason to believe in better times... before better times showed up slightly ahead of schedule. Tribe fans got a too-brief glimpse of White before he injured his finger, and he was about to make his first rehab appearance when the deal went down. They're not even a year removed from the Pomeranz hoopla that came when he signed his first professional contract.
Speaking of that signing, the Indians gave bonuses totaling nearly $5 million to White and Pomeranz, so that figure must also be taken into account when we talk about how club-friendly Jimenez's salary is.Then again, you think about White's finger. And you remember that another highly touted arm, Adam Miller, was once "untouchable" in trade talks, before his fickle finger resulted in four separate surgeries that have left him a 26-year-old Double-A reliever. You also remember that best-laid plans often go to waste. The Indians thought they had built something special from within following the 2007 run to the ALCS, but they fell on their face in '08 and '09, prompting another rebuild. So here arrives another postseason opportunity. As Antonetti said, you never know when, or if, the next one is coming around the corner. Jimenez coming on board in time for what might well be a make-or-break stretch against the Red Sox and Rangers could be a game-changer, or he could just provide more sterling starting efforts wasted by an inefficient offense. Either way, the 2012 Tribe rotation, with Jimenez, Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin, Fausto Carmona and Carlos Carrasco on board, is slightly more appealing on paper. But its depth has undoubtedly taken a hit. There will be no highly polished hot prospect coming around the corner. What you see is basically what you get. That's why this was such a bold move. "The Plan" so many assumed the Indians were operating by is a Deadline casualty, if it even existed at all. Antonetti made it clear he believes in one plan only, and that's to win while the opportunity is here. And he has a heck of a lot riding on Ubaldo Jimenez being a big part of it.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.