SARASOTA, Fla. -- Throughout the course of six full seasons in the major leagues, starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez had accumulated an impressive career. Certainly, he was no superstar, and some years were better than others, but in his career he had won more games than he had lost, and he'd bounced back from a brutal 2012 that saw him lose 17 games and post a 5.40 ERA. In his final chance to prove himself before free agency, he had posted an impressive 3.30 ERA in 2013, not to mention the fact that he had a career 3.92 ERA despite having pitched the majority of his games while playing for the Colorado Rockies and their less-than-friendly home park of Coors Field.
Entering the 2013-14 offseason, Jimenez figured he would be the premier free-agent starting pitcher on the market. And then the Cleveland Indians made him a qualifying offer, which would tie him to draft compensation, and the whole act of free agency became an entire mess.
"It was a headache, you could even say a nightmare until my dream came true and I was able to sign with Baltimore," Jimenez said. "It was a long process. It was a process that you could even say left me feeling desperate. One has to wait without knowing what's going to happen with your career, especially once January arrived and then the beginning of February. Spring training had started and I was still in the process of trying to sort through offers. It was a difficult process."
Jimenez had looked forward to free agency for quite some time. He felt he had earned it. Six years in the majors was no joke. He had gone through some highs and then some extreme lows that tested him.
At one point, Jimenez had felt so desperate at having lost the ability to command his pitches that he began to think that he could no longer throw a baseball. His rebound in 2013 was commendable. He had helped the Indians compete for a playoff spot for most of the season. He was certain that he would be rewarded.
"You have to wait six years to get to free agency," Jimenez said. "And when you get there, you feel like it should be a moment of happiness, and then suddenly it's not so pleasant and then you have to go through the type of process I went through, feeling a bit desperate, not knowing how your market will end up, and how they lower the market, it's difficult."
Jimenez could have simply accepted the Indians qualifying offer, which would have guaranteed him $14.1 million for this season. He was appreciative of the offer, but he wasn't interested in going through his career on a year-by-year contract basis. Nobody was more aware than Jimenez that $14.1 million was a lot of money. He had grown up in a modest household in the Dominican, a country where the majority of citizens make only a few dollars a day. His parents had worked extremely hard in order to ensure that he would have a good life. He had not grown up in abject poverty like many Dominicans, but he was not rich either.
But what Jimenez wanted was to be paid according to what he had accomplished and according to what he could accomplish during his new contract. So he rejected the Indians offer and chose to test the market. By rejecting the offer, Jimenez guaranteed that whatever team signed him would have to surrender a draft pick.
"I never regretted it," he said of turning down the qualifying offer. "I knew what the market for starting pitchers could be. It's difficult to find good starting pitchers. So I knew that I would have a better offer than the qualifying offer. Or at the very least, I wasn't as much worried about the annual salary, I was more concerned with having the long-term security."
Jimenez can laugh about it now. On Feb. 17, he signed a four-year, $50 million contract with the Orioles. Eventually, Jimenez was rewarded. But he looks across the room and sees outfielder Nelson Cruz, who joined Baltimore days after Jimenez did for just $8 million over one year after having also been tied to draft compensation, and he shakes his head.
"They've lowered the market for all of us," Jimenez said. "Look at how Nelson had to land here. We're incredibly happy to have him here, but you know that in a perfect world, that's not the contract that he should have had."
Baltimore has solidified its contender status by having taken advantage of draft compensation free agents. Two of them now stand in the Orioles clubhouse with rumors that a third, starting pitcher Ervin Santana, might soon join them.
Jimenez and Cruz both said they were happy to be with the Orioles. They were grateful for the opportunity to play for a contender, and neither held a grudge against the team, but neither felt completely satisfied with how the process had played out either.
"Life has a lot of highs and lows, and you have to take the positive out of everything," said Cruz, whose value was hurt both by a 50-game suspension for his association with the Biogenesis clinic last season and questions about his poor defense. "I learned a lot about the business and I learned something about myself. You realize that there are a lot of things in the game you can't control. Simply, you learn more about the system and you try your best to understand it."
But for the players, even now, it's still difficult to understand.
"I think the players association needs to take a look at this," Jimenez said. "Really, look at what happened to so many players this year. And really, it also happened to a lot of players last year with Kyle Lohse and Michael Bourn. Look at this year, you still have Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales who are still free agents. Definitely, something has to be done. It hurts players who are headed toward free agency."
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For many agents, and certainly for many players, the issue become a hot topic when it became obvious that many players tied to draft compensation were having a difficult time finding a new team.
When the Nov. 11 deadline passed, all 13 of the players who had been offered qualifying offers had declined the guaranteed $14.1 million. The most elite players -- such as Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Shin-Soo Choo -- weren't much affected at all, because the players were considered superstars and teams didn't care if they had to surrender a draft pick. In other cases, such as the Yankees signing the trio of Ellsbury, McCann and Beltran, the issue became moot because the team had already surrendered its first-round pick with one of the signings, so the subsequent signings only forced it to give up lower-round picks.
The quick early signings gave a false sense of security for the rest.
"One of the things that had given me hope, was that in November and December a lot of the position players signed who had been tied to draft compensation," Jimenez said. "I started thinking that maybe things are starting to settle into place. But then the [Masahiro] Tanaka situation came and I had to wait to see if he was going to be posted, and that situation stretched until January. It was even that more complicated."
The draft compensation was part of the new collective bargaining agreement that was signed prior to the 2012 season. The old CBA had a complicated system in which teams had a surrender a particular round pick for signing a free agent depending on how an agreed-upon statistical system rated a player. The better the player, according to the stats, the better the draft pick that was surrendered.
The new CBA eliminates the guesswork. A team has the option of offering its free-agent player a qualifying offer, the amount of which is determined by taking the average of the annual value of the top 125 contracts for that season. If a player declines the offer, his old team would receive a compensatory pick after the first round. His new team would lose its first-round pick, unless the team had already surrenderd its first-round pick by signing another free agent or if the team that signed the player had a top-10 pick, which is protected.
Perhaps what players didn't realize was that first-round picks would become so coveted. With escalating salaries, many teams simply have decided to build their teams through the draft.
"In reality, it was us players who put us in this situation," Cruz said. "But definitely, if there's something that can be done to help the process, then hopefully it can be done. What? I can't really say. I know that in the future things will be done to make sure players aren't put in this position."
One of the most difficult aspects for Jimenez was the constant fear of getting injured. In order to reduce the risk, he cut down on his workouts. Instead of throwing from a mound like he usually does in the offseason, Jimenez instead threw long toss on flat ground from 90 or 120 feet. He never once took the mound in the offseason.
At the gym, Jimenez would run less miles than he would normally run, and he almost completely stopped lifting weights. He had become paranoid that even the rumor of an injury could knock down his market value even more.
"You felt like you couldn't do too much," Jimenez said. "You don't want to risk hurting a knee or an ankle. You had to be extra careful."
By limiting his workload in the offseason, Jimenez has now possibly increased his chances of getting injured during the season if he pushes himself too hard. So for the most part, once he signed with Baltimore, Jimenez has tried to pace himself to get into shape.
Although he says the Orioles have him on an accelerated program, Jimenez' Friday afternoon appearance against the Philadelphia Phillies will be his first game of the spring. When he finally takes the mound, Jimenez will finally be able to put behind him what turned out to be a turbulent, and longer than expected, offseason. As expected, Jimenez said he's anxious to make his debut.
"I can't be trying to break the catcher's glove with each pitch," Jimenez said. "I have to take it easy. Honestly, I'm really excited, but I also have to put it in my head that it's my first spring training game. I can't do something stupid to hurt myself knowing how much the team is counting on me for the season."
Cruz's late signing also put him behind most of his teammates. Aside from the conditioning time he missed, Cruz only had four spring training plate appearances entering Friday's game.
Since Cruz' deal is only for 2014, he might have to go through the same process next winter. If he has a quality season, the Orioles might opt to make him a qualifying offer. Perhaps this time, Cruz might be wise to accept it. Although Cruz declined to say what he'd do if this happened again this offseason, he did indicate that he had learned from this past offseason.
Although Jimenez hopes that the Major League Baseball Players Association takes a look at the issue, he doesn't have any suggestions as to how to fix the system. He just knows that it isn't fair for things to stay the same.