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Why Did the Rockies Trade Ubaldo?

The Rockies and Indians finalized a deal Saturday night that sent ace Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland in exchange for prospects Alex White, Joe Gardner, Matt McBride and Drew Pomeranz. The rumors swirling around Jimenez were strange from the start, since a team in the Rockies position usually looks to acquire pitchers of that ilk rather than deal them away. However, after learning of the exact return package and assessing the state of the Rockies organization, dealing away Jimenez made more sense than it originally seemed, and might benefit the team more over the next few years.

In Jimenez, the Rockies had a very valuable trade chip if he was ever to be made available. He tallied about 4.5 WAR in 2008, and then sat right around 6 WAR in both 2009 and 2010. Cost-controlled pitchers with that type of resume just aren’t generally made available, since those are the pitchers teams try to build around, not without. Jimenez is currently signed to a four-year, $10 million deal that expires in 2012, with club options for $3.75 million in 2013 and $8 million the very next season. By virtue of his contract, however, he can void the 2014 option if traded.

In spite of the cost control, if a great deal of the budget is already committed and the top prospects within the system — who were going to be relied upon to contribute in the major league rotation before 2013-14 — weren’t developing up to expectations, then there isn’t a whole lot to actually build with. By trading away Jimenez, the Rockies basically admitted one of two things, if not both:

1) They were bearish on Jimenez’ ability to ever reach that 5+ WAR area again
2) They have soured on farmhands like Christian Friedrich and Tyler Matzek, who haven’t developed the way the organization envisioned

Assuming those two points were the impetus for a deal, then the Rockies may have, in a lost 2011 season, put themselves in a better position to succeed in the very near future. After all, it isn’t as if this team was in need of a complete roster overhaul, and there isn’t a window about to close that will limit their contention. Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki aren’t going anywhere for a while, and it is much easier to build around those two players than to find them.

The Rockies should have a good team next year, and the year after, and the year after that. By subtracting Ubaldo and adding prospects, the consensus might be that they took on risk, but it is entirely possible that their internal evaluations of Jimenez placed him at the same level of risk. Under that assumption, the Rockies would have effectively sold high and hedged the risk by acquiring multiple top pitching prospects.

Ubaldo is what I like to call an unknown known entity. We know he has talent but it is tough to peg his true talent level right now, if his velocity continues to drop, and his hurky-jurky windup is considered a massive health risk. Yes, his peripherals and ERA estimators are almost identical to the marks posted in each of the last two seasons, but I’m not ready to write off the ERA difference strictly as luck-laden, when he is throwing almost three miles per hour slower on average. There is a big difference in the outlooks of the 96-mph Jimenez and the 93-mph version of himself.

The best prospect returned in the deal is Drew Pomeranz, whose last name sounds like the type of flavored iced tea I would drink. The young southpaw was the fifth overall pick last year, and cannot actually be traded until August 15 to abide by the good ‘ole Pete Incavigla rule. After posting a 1.87 ERA and 11.1 K/9 in High-A this year, Pomeranz has taken to Double-A quite well in three starts: 2.57 ERA, 10.9 K/9, 3.9 BB/9. The walks aren’t completely concerning yet, especially since he strikes so many batters out.

Marc Hulet ranked him as the fourth best prospect in the system entering the season, and he will likely jump to the top of the Rockies list next season. Hulet projected his peak to feature seasons around 4 WAR, which matches Keith Law’s projection as a #2 starter in the majors.

Alex White is the other major prospect in the deal. Hulet had him ranked #2 on the Tribe’s pre-season prospect list, and estimated he could produce 4-4.5 WAR in his peak. His mechanics aren’t inspiring, but he has improved his control and groundball rate, which cuts into the losses associated with his reduced strikeout rate in Double-A last season. Then again, in four starts at Triple-A before actually getting called up to the major league squad, White posted a 1.90 ERA, 10.7 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9. He very well could have been trying something new last year, which he has fine-tuned this season.

He relies on a splitter to generate the grounders and induce whiffs, but at the major league level it will result in much more groundballing than missed bats. The reports on White suggest that, if his breaking ball develops, he could become a key cog in a major league rotation. Otherwise, his two-pitch pitcherness will keep him at the back end of the bullpen. If the Rockies traded Jimenez to the Indians and insisted White be included, their people must be bullish on their ability to help him develop the pitch.

Matt McBride isn’t really anyone to write home about, and is more of a throw-in, but Joe Gardner is an interesting pitcher. He doesn’t have the pedigree of a White or Pomeranz, but could become a nice cost-controlled starter at the back of a rotation. Hulet had him ranked #6 on the Indians prospect list entering the season, and the extreme groundballer is exactly the type of pitcher the Rockies could use. If he continues to generate ground balls, it stands to reason he could keep the ball in the yard, which is a key consideration for pitchers in the Rockies system given the thin air in Denver.

For most of the last few days I wondered why the Rockies would even consider trading Jimenez. In the end, the best comparison I could muster was the Diamondbacks trade of Max Scherzer that eventually netted them Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy. Ubaldo has a more consistent and storied track record than Scherzer had at the time, but Pomeranz and White are also regarded very highly in most circles. By trading away a risky major league starter — with the risk related to health and mechanics — for a few potential major league starters capable of making an impact as soon as next season, the Rockies are in an even better position than they were before the deal. The production of Jimenez, especially if it was expected to be watered down, could be replicated by two or three of their farmhands, and the system itself is in a better spot.

The process itself was questionable from the start. But even if Pomeranz, White and Gardner don’t pan out, the Rockies proactively addressed a perceived glaring need by utilizing their best trade chip to extract three of the top prospects of another organization. It’s hard to imagine the Rockies didn’t accomplish their goals in this deal.