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Fantasy Face-Off: Ubaldo Jimenez versus Trevor Cahill

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A tough decision for any fantasy owner to make, is one where they are buying low and selling high. In your mind, if you are selling high on a player, you might be thinking "What if I'm making the wrong decision and it turns out he is this good?"

On the opposite side you're saying "What if I'm selling low on this player and he rebounds to be amazing again, while the player I buy high on hits a bump in the road?"

I pondered this question today and came up with two names that I have a hard time deciding on which I like better. The Rockies slumping ace Ubaldo Jimenez, or the A's outstanding ERA, but low strikeout ace, Trevor Cahill.

In order to make a sound decision, we must look at the facts and compare the players in a few key categories.

The participants:

Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado Rockies, age 27, RHP

versus,

Trevor John Cahill, Oakland Athletics, age 23, RHP

Injuries

Jimenez has a longer history of injuries, but none are serious. His longer history, is probably only due to him being in the league longer and many pitchers suffer through many minor injuries.

Cahill went on the 15-day DL last season with a sore shoulder. He only missed 14 games, and that is his only trip to the DL.

Advantage: Cahill. The only reason that I don't call this a push is because of the lost velocity from Ubaldo this season. It's too worrisome to ignore, even if he says he isn't hurt.

Much more after the jump...

Pedigree

Jimenez signed as an amateur free agent with Colorado in 2001. He steadily moved up the ladder, and after a breakout 9 starts in the Cal League in 2004 (9 starts, 2.23 ERA, 44.1 innings, 61 K's, 12 bb's, 1 HR allowed) Baseball America ranked Jimenez the #82 prospect in baseball at age 20. There was a lot of room for growth and a chance to shoot up the prospect rankings.

He struggled in his return trip to the Cal League the following year, allowing 5 BB/9. However, the Rockies moved him up to AA anyway and he not surprisingly continued to struggle. In 11 starts, he had a 5.53 ERA. He was still getting strikeouts, but he was hittable and he walked too many. This dropped him off of the top 100. In 2006, Jimenez was strong again. He posted a 2.45 ERA in 13 AA starts, 10.6 K/9, and he moved up to AAA. Despite a 5.06 ERA in 13 starts for AAA Colorado Springs, and a still worrisome 4.9 BB/9, BA ranked Ubaldo the #84 prospect in baseball, because he could throw as hard as anyone in the minors.

Trevor Cahill was drafted by Oakland in the 2nd round of the 2006 amateur draft out of high school. He made his full season debut in 2007, with A-ball Kane County, posting a 2.73 ERA in 19 starts, 117/40 K/BB ratio in 105 innings. With prospectors still curious to see how he would do at higher levels, Cahill did not make the BA top 100. However, in 2008 he 2.61 ERA across two levels at age 20 with 136/50 K/BB ratio in 124.1 innings. BA fell in love with him and Cahill ranked as the #11 prospect in the game.

Advantage: Cahill. I think Ubaldo probably deserved a little more credit than he was given, considering age-relative-to-league. But the walks were notably concerning. Cahill probably shot up a little more than I would have expected. But Cahill was a slightly better prospect.

Major League Track Record

We now have over 764 major league innings with which to judge Ubaldo. He made 15 starts in 2007 and actually improved his walk rate (4.1) but also saw a drop in strikeouts (7.5). Still, a 4.28 ERA for a 23 year old playing half of his games in Coors was impressive. He made 34 starts in 2008, got his ERA under 4 (3.99) and struck out 172 batters. However, walks crept up and he gave 103 free passes in 198 innings. He made much improvement in 2009: 15-12, 3.47 ERA, 218 innings, 198 K's, 85 BB's, 183 hits. For a team with the reputation of the Rockies, he put together perhaps the finest season Rockies fans had ever seen from a pitcher. So, there were high hopes for 2010.

Ubaldo was the talk of the league to start the year. In his first 14 starts, he went 13-1 with a 1.15 ERA, 101.1 innings, 88 K's, 36 BB's, 65 hits and 1 no-hitter. Everyone was asking "How many games can Ubaldo win?" However, he hit a rough patch and over his next 6 starts he went 2-1 with a 7.64 ERA. Baldy got back on track following that stretch, finishing the year with a 3.06 ERA in his last 13 starts. Final line: 19-8, 2.88 ERA, 221 innings, 214 K's and a third place finish in the NL Cy Young race.

Cahill earned a job out of spring training in 2009 at the ripe age of 21. He posted good numbers for a player his age: 10-13, 4.63 ERA. But his strikeouts were down to 4.5 per 9, and his walks were at 3.6 per 9. Maybe fans were worried his was overrated, but people... he was 21 years old. Cahill didn't take long to breakout. Last season he went 18-8, 2.97 ERA over 30 starts. His K's were up to 5.4 and his walks dropped to 2.9. I was still very skeptical of Cahill because of the low strikeout numbers. It's very hard to succeed at this level with a strikeout rate that low. But again, he was very young.

Advantage: Ubaldo. Despite a very good year last season from Cahill, it didn't match what Jimenez did. Combined with a longer history of succeeding in the most hitter-friendly run environment in the big leagues, and Ubaldo is the more trustworthy of the two.

2011 Season

Jimenez came into the year as one of the top starting pitchers in all the game. To say he has struggled puts it mildly. In 7 starts, he has given up more than 1 ER in 6 of them. He has walked 4 or more in 4 of them. He hasn't had one really good start all season long. He gave up 2 hits to San Francisco, but walked 5 batters. He gave up 1 hit to Florida in 5 innings, but walked 4 batters. In his last start against the Giants, he struck out 7 and walked 1 in 7 innings, but gave up 8 hits. Something is off with Ubaldo. Total: 0-3, 6.14 ERA, 23 BBs in 36.2 innings, but 37 K's.

Things are clicking for the 23 year old Cahill. He is 6-1 with a 1.82 ERA, 3.16 FIP. Most impressive of all is a jump in K's to 7 per 9 innings. Now THAT is something owners can look at and be happy with. Especially when he has limited walks to 2.7 per 9. A continuation of the strikeout numbers should mean that this breakout is for real.

Adavantage: Cahill. Not close.

"Stuff"

Oh, the concept of stuff and how to define it. Let's just make it as simple as possible. Jimenez, through the first four years of his career, featured a fastball that was his bread and butter and sat in the mid-to-high 90's. For that last two seasons, it average 96.1. The best in baseball. He combines that with a slider, curve, and change. This season, his average FB velocity is 92.8. Pitchers often peak in velocity early in their careers and must adjust as the speed gradually slows down. This hasn't been gradual, and it's the biggest cause for concern. What happened to the fastball?

Cahill works his fastball in the high-80's, low-90's. However, its been very effective in his career. He also features a 80 MPH change and a 78 MPH curve.

Advantage: Ubaldo. No disrespect to Cahill, but if we're talking about "stuff" in the classical sense, that's where Jimenez has the full advantage over most pitchers. Even if its disappeared this season, his long track record would assume that he can get it back. Maybe he just needs a trip to the DL. Who knows.

Home Park

There's not much to get into here if you follow baseball. If you are here, I assume you follow baseball. Oakland is a pitchers park, Colorado is a hitters park. It's somewhat advantageous for Ubaldo to pitch in the NL, but he still has a bigger hurdle to climb than Cahill.

Advantage: Cahill

Conclusion:

The question becomes "Would I trade Jimenez for Cahill?" Based on everything seen here, I would have to say that I would. Going into the season, Jimenez was the strong favorite. It seemed Cahill was due for regression, and Jimenez was a strong candidate to win a Cy Young, post good strikeout numbers, and keep an ERA near 3. However, the dip in velocity is worrisome and the strikeout difference is narrowing. It's not good that Ubaldo's groundball rate, which has been just over 50% for his career, is now 39.6%. To be successful in Colorado, its not surprising that you got to keep the ball out of the air. His line drives and flyballs against are up, and his HR/FB rate has doubled from last season. (Mostly uncontrollable by pitchers, he can't get fastballs by hitters as often anymore however)

But most concerning is the drop in velocity. Where did the 3-4 MPH go? We've seen pitchers like Felix and Lincecum adjust to lost velocity and maintain Cy Young level production. But Ubaldo has been completely unable to do that, even if it is only 3 starts.

On the other side of the coin, Cahill seems to just be starting his career and has seen his 3rd straight year of improvement. Going into 2011, Cahill would have been well behind Jimenez in my mind. He's taken just a step ahead.