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Posted February 18, 2014 | comments Leave a comment

Nations: Orioles gambling to win

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Jeff Nations

Is it spring yet?

Ha ha, good one, right? Even Tuesday's toasty high-40 degree weather wasn't enough to distract me from the enormous mounds (albeit, shrinking) of snow covering what promises to be a boggy wasteland that was once my front yard. I officially hate snow, in all its forms -- Florida or Arizona (probably Florida) can confirm another couple of retirees when my wife and I are ready cash in on those golden years.

For now, I can only dream of Spring Training and try to fend off snow blindness for another day.

Big news for Orioles fans this week, for once. After an off-season spent angering Australian closers and journeyman outfielders, Baltimore apparently found someone -- two someones, actually -- who could pass what must be the industry's most thorough physical exam. Both are pitchers, which is great news for O's fans pining for some help in that area. Neither are sure things, but then what pitcher is? The signings of free-agent starting pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and, to a lesser extent, South Korean hurler Suk min-Yoon, represent real honest-to-goodness gambles for Orioles executive vice-president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and the rest of the front office.

With a solid core which promises to hold together for just two more seasons before the looming free agency of slugging first baseman Chris Davis and rock-solid catcher Matt Wieters, the general consensus among Orioles fans seems to have been impatience, if not outright outrage, at Baltimore's seeming complacency to improve during one of those rare windows of opportunity in the free-spending American League East. The reigning world champion Boston Red Sox are still a formidable roadblock, the Tampa Bay Rays are lean and loaded, the Yankees ... spent a lot of money ... and even the Toronto Blue Jays are a threat with the talent they amassed in last year's spending spree still on hand for another run at the postseason.

It's no sure thing, even with improvements to Baltimore's shaky rotation. But compared to many of the past 30-odd seasons, this still represents one of the better chances for the Orioles to make noise in the AL East.

Now about those improvements ... the Yoon signing is low-risk dice roll, judging by the three-year, $5.575 million dollar contract he took to pitch in Baltimore. Yoon has been one of the top pitchers in the Korean Baseball Organization, rivaling current Los Angeles Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu, but scouting reports don't rank his stuff as anything extraordinary. Combine that with a shoulder injury which slowed him last year, and it's little surprise that the Orioles were able to land Yoon as a potential fifth starter for what looks like a fairly reasonable price. He could be the next Ryu, or filler for the Norfolk Tides, or mostly likely just as advertised -- there some risk, but not so much.

The big signing is Jimenez, of course. The former Colorado Rockies star right-hander revived his career last year with the Cleveland Indians after two atrocious seasons. The durable 30-year-old was 13-9 with a solid 3.30 ERA while striking out 194 batters in 182 2/3 innings. That's all good.

Now for the bad -- Jimenez has never been what you'd call "consistent," or even "reliable." His walk rates are always too high, his velocity has dropped a couple miles an hour since his Cy Young Award-contending days with the Rockies, and he was really only good for half of last season. The Orioles plunked down a four-year, $48 million contract for that, not to mention forfeiting that first-round draft pick they'd been loathe to give up as better options continued to come off the board during the winter months.

This is a big-time gamble on a boom-or-bust pitcher, one the Orioles need to win to be in the conversation this season. Jimenez is penciled as Baltimore's No. 2 starter this year, and they obviously believe the pitcher they saw over the second half of last season is the pitcher they're getting going forward for the next several years.

Whether you like the deal or not, it has to be encouraging for Orioles fans to see the team do something -- anything -- to better position for contention this season. While they're at it, a designated hitter along the lines of a Kendrys Morales or Nelson Cruz would be nice, not to mention another starter (Ervin Santana, anyone?). Since the Orioles are finally in the mood to gamble, maybe it's time to go all-in for this season.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>


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