Rumors are flying that Ubaldo Jimenez, the best pitcher in Colorado Rockies' history, is on the trading block. While the concept is inconceivable to most Rockies fans (and it's certainly a difficult possibility to accept) this may not be a terrible idea for the long term health of the franchise.
Does anyone remember the last two major Rockies stars to be traded? Let's look back to the Winter Meetings after the 2006 season. Rockies' GM traded top pitcher Jason Jennings -- who was signed for another year -- to the Houston Astros in exchange for OF Willy Taveras and top pitching prospects Taylor Buchholz and Jason Hirsh. Jennings was a budding star in Colorado, and the only Rockies' pitcher to ever win the Rookie of the Year award.
The results of that trade? Buchholz became one of the top setup men in baseball before suffering an elbow injury, Taveras became the starting center fielder for the 2007 NL Champion Rockies, and Hirsh ended up suffering a broken leg that derailed his career. Still, it's difficult to imagine that Colorado makes the postseason in 2007 without this trade.
The other big trade under Dan O'Dowd is the Matt Holliday swap. The budding superstar was entering the last year of his contract, but was unlikely to accept the contract offer Colorado had extended to him. Instead of waiting until the 2009 trade deadline, the Rockies traded Holliday to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for top prospect Carlos Gonzalez and pitchers Huston Street and Greg Smith.
Again, this trade was an enormous win for the Rockies. Gonzalez became a triple crown and MVP candidate with Colorado, while Street became the Rockies' closer and best relief pitcher. Both players signed extensions with the club and led directly to Colorado's 2009 playoff run, with Gonzalez likely to be one of the club's centerpiece talents for the next seven years.
O'Dowd has shown good value in exchanging MLB players for quality near MLB-ready prospects in the past, even when the circumstances are not ideal. With a Ubaldo trade, he would hold all the leverage in any negotiations.
Contending teams always get desperate around the trade deadline, and the market for starting pitching this year is dreadful. Edwin Jackson has already been traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for top young outfielder Colby Rasmus, and now teams are fighting over players like Hiroki Kuroda and Wandy Rodriguez. Both are solid pitchers, but when they represent the top of the available talent, you know the market is barren. There's only one true impact starter on the market, and that is Ubaldo Jimenez.
The most desireable aspect of a Jimenez trade is the structure of the contract itself. Signed to one of the most team-friendly contracts in major league baseball, Jimenez is under team control through 2013 for $9.95 million, with an option in 2014 for another $8 million (though this option can be voided by Jimenez if he is traded). The potential for a top flight starting pitcher through 2014 for $17.95 million? This contract isn't restricted to the standard contending teams like the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Rangers, and Boston Red Sox. This is a contract that would help any team in baseball and for multiple seasons. This wouldn't be a rental; it would be an immediate upgrade to any franchise's pitching rotation.
If Ubaldo Jimenez is such a valuable commodity, then why would Rockies' GM Dan O'Dowd even consider putting him on the market?
Colorado's record since 2009: 224-205
Colorado's record since 2010: 132-135
For a team that many consider to be one of the most talented in the National League, and an annual favorite to win the NL West, the Rockies have been severely underperforming expectations. You can discount some underachievement to injury or bad luck, but the fact of the matter is that Colorado has not met expectations -- even with the rise of Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Ubaldo Jimenez as star caliber players. It's a growing possibility that the supporting cast on this club is simply not of championship caliber, and that the team needs an upgrade in talent.
With a lack of impact prospects ready on the farm system and the stalled development of young players like Dexter Fowler and Ian Stewart, it's difficult to see where the Rockies can gain impact talent. Tulowitzki is the face of the franchise and one of the most valuable players in baseball, and Gonzalez's contract would make even the most aggressive club balk at the length and remaining cost. Players like Seth Smith and Chris Iannetta would bring in one or two quality players in trade, but no impact blue chip prospects.
That leaves Ubaldo. Despite his below-average season in 2011, he's still extremely valuable on the open market and would demand an enormous price in trade. It's a painful pill to swallow from a fan standpoint, as Ubaldo means more to the Rockies organization than just wins and strikeouts; he's a joy to watch and a fan favorite. Unfortunately, he's also the most direct route to a talent infusion that could push the club to a championship level. There's no guarantees here, and trading the best arm Colorado has ever seen holds its share of risks. But staying the course with the current roster suggests more seasons full of disappointment and mediocrity. For a team that has maintained they are built to win now, that is not an option.
It's a hard choice for O'Dowd to make, but he has never shied away from trading his best players for multiple pieces. After trading away Jason Jennings (his best pitcher after the 2006 season) Dan O'Dowd said the following:
"This was a trade we would have made whether Jason was in the last year of his contract or not," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "Any time you get back three major league-ready players, it's very difficult to do in this environment, and this is the kind of baseball deal we will always have to make. Whether he had three years and 'X' amount of money left on his contract or he was entering his final year, we would have made this trade."
A prescient statement made six years ago that still holds relevance today. The Rockies business model requires a constant influx of young, cost-controlled talent from the farm system. When that talent proves insufficient, more drastic steps are needed to remain competitive. The Jennings and Holliday trades provided talent for immediate playoff runs. While it would be difficult for Colorado to become a better team overnight without the young fireballer's right arm in the rotation, multiple top prospects would certainly shore up holes in the current farm system and likely give Colorado multiple young players that could blossom into stars.
The alternative? Hope that the Rockies are lucky and enjoy multiple rebounds next season from players like Stewart and Fowler without a loss of production from Todd Helton, Chris Iannetta, and Seth Smith. They would also be banking on major contributions from potential rookies Charlie Blackmon, Tim Wheeler, and Wilin Rosario. That's quite a few "maybe's" for a single contending team.
Even if the blockbuster talent isn't available at the deadline, the Rockies don't have to trade him. The Colorado front office won't move their best pitcher without a substantial haul of young talent in return. But don't expect this concept to disappear after the trade deadline. If Ubaldo is still pitching in a Colorado uniform in August, expect to hear more trade rumors during the Winter Meetings this offseason.