Saturday, March 20, 2010

Colorado Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez; The Next Pedro Martinez

For years Major League pitchers have been cringing about taking the mound at Coors Field.

Veterans who had been extremely successful on other teams around the league watched their career ERA's vanish into the thin mile high air of Denver after they signed deals with the Rockies. It was bad enough that many baseball experts openly wondered if the Rockies would ever be able to field a team capable of contending.

Two things have changed in Colorado. First, a humidor was built to keep baseballs moist, and dense. Much of the problem was not the altitude, but the fact that Colorado's air is so void of moisture that the leather on the balls would actually dry up and shrink, causing the ball to be lighter and harder, traveling further.

Second, the Rockies realized that their days of bringing in veteran pitchers was over. They would need to raise up a generation of starting pitchers that believed they could pitch anywhere and be successful.

The theory has proven to be successful, beginning with Jason Jennings winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2002, continuing on with Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis both having a fair amount of success at the big league level. But the one pitcher that the Rockies have raised through their farm system that has the greatest potential is fireballer Ubaldo Jimenez.

Jimenez has all the talent in the world. He consistently throws 98 MPH, occasionally hitting 100. While the heat is tough to hit, couple that with the fact that his fastball is anything but straight makes him tough to hit. What makes Jimenez nearly impossible to hit, however, is that he slider and change up are nearly as effective.

The righty from the Dominican Republic grew up idolizing countryman Pedro Martinez. He watched him pitch whenever he could. In 2008 Jimenez realized a dream when he pitched against his childhood hero - and won.

What was even more of a dream come true was that Martinez had nothing but praise for Jimenez. In fact, he took to him so much that he calls Jimenez after nearly every start to talk about mechanics and to give advice.

Jimenez was a huge reason the Rockies won the National League pennant in 2007. After being called up in July, he showed poise that is seen by very few 24 year olds. In 2008, he took another step forward, finishing the season with a 3.99 ERA, winning 12 games for the club. The breakthrough season, however, came in 2009, where Jimenez set a club record for ERA with a 3.47 mark, an amazing number considering his home park.

The righty finished the 2009 campaign 15-12, logging 218 innings and continuing to get better in each start. His performance was so great down the stretch that those watching him on a daily basis are suggesting that Jimenez may become the Rockies first ever 20-game winner, putting him squarely in the National League Cy Young conversation.

For Jimenez to take that next step and win 20 games he will need to avoid the big inning. In 2009 it would seem that Jimenez would struggle with control in one inning and give up a couple of runs, then settle in and shut down the opposition.

The scary thing for those opposing Jimenez is that the 26 year old is still just learning how to pitch. His lanky 6'4" body provides for many moving parts in his delivery, causing his mechanics to be a work in progress. However, in the second half of 2009 Jimenez started to put it all together, striking fear into his opponents.

The 2010 season should be very interesting for Jimenez. All indications are that he has taken the next step forward, which would set him up to be one of the best pitchers in the game.

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