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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Ubaldo signing puts O's in the thick of it in AL East

If Jimenez pitches like he did late last season, Baltimore has made big pitching move

Ubaldo signing puts O's in the thick of it in AL East play video for Ubaldo signing puts O's in the thick of it in AL East

Can one player change the look of an entire division race? Could that one player be Ubaldo Jimenez? Could he really mean that much to the Baltimore Orioles?

In a word, yes.

If the Orioles are getting the Jimenez they think they're getting, if they're getting the guy who has at times done a good imitation of being one of the best pitchers in the game, then, yes, it could.

If that's the case, the O's may be back in the game in the American League East, capable of hanging with the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees in a division that could give us a summer of good teams bloodying one another's noses.

At the moment, you might still line 'em up this way: 1. Rays and Red Sox (coin toss); 3. Yankees; 4. Orioles. But all four of these teams seem capable of winning, and doesn't that have the potential for fun?

This is one of the joys of being a baseball fan in an era when at least -- and I mean at least -- 20 teams appear capable of making the playoffs. Actually, perhaps 22 teams believe they're good enough to make the postseason if a couple of things go right, and there are another five or six who think they could make things interesting.

At this point, it's impossible to look at more than a couple of teams -- Cardinals? Tigers? -- and feel certain they're going to the postseason. Yes, it's that close.

Back to the AL East and Jimenez and the Orioles. His arrival means that it's much easier to make a case for the Birds winning the division, or at least making the postseason.

Until now, that was difficult to do, even though there was plenty to like about this team. First, there's that lineup. It's the best in the division, one of the best in the game. It's deep and has smart hitters, and it wears out starting pitchers.

That's Chris Davis and 53 home runs in the middle of things and Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy and Matt Weiters and Nick Markakis. If 21-year-old Manny Machado returns from that gruesome knee injury by Opening Day, or even if he gets back in time to have a productive season, the O's will score enough runs and play very good defense.

The Orioles are hoping Tommy Hunter can replace Jim Johnson at the back of the bullpen. Regardless, they have a bunch of quality arms and a manager, Buck Showalter, who runs a bullpen as well as almost anyone.

Now about that rotation. Chris Tillman is a legitimate No. 1. Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris are capable Major League starters. Two top prospects -- Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy (recovering from Tommy John surgery)-- should figure into the mix at some point.

Just with those guys, the O's would appear to have a group capable of competing. But there are question marks up and down the pitching staff. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette is marvelously creative, and over the past two years he has found talent here, there and everywhere.

Maybe that's what Duquette has done again with the signing of 27-year-old Korean right-hander Suk-min Yoon. He's a former Most Valuable Player in South Korea and someone capable of taking on almost any role.

In Showalter we trust. That is, if there are enough arms there, Showalter will figure out how to use them. No manager gets more out of the roster he's given.

Jimenez adds depth, but he adds more than that. He potentially adds quality depth, the kind capable of pitching big games down the stretch. That's what Jimenez did for the Indians last season. After Aug. 2, he compiled a 1.76 ERA in his final 10 starts and got the game into at least the eighth inning all but one time. Before that, Jimenez had been decent -- 8-6 with a 4.18 ERA -- but not spectacular. After that, he was spectacular.

Jimenez has had other stretches like that in his career. In 2010, he started 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA for the Rockies. He won just four of his final 15 starts, although he pitched solidly at times.

Two years later, Jimenez lost a league-leading 17 games and had a 5.40 ERA for the Indians. But then last season, he turned it around again.

Jimenez is 30 years old now, so it may be unfair to think he's suddenly going to morph into something else. But maybe at 30, he has figured it out. Maybe Jimenez has found consistency in his arm slot and pitch selection. Guys figure out things at different points in their careers.

If so, the Orioles have made themselves a huge acquisition. And they've made the AL East potentially even more entertaining. The Red Sox and Rays appear to be evenly matched at the top. The Yankees are good enough to win if their older guys stay healthy and especially if CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka are healthy and productive.

Every AL East team has a couple of important questions, although the Rays would seem to have fewer than the others. In the end, we're the winners. We get to watch these teams slug it out this summer. On Monday, the O's reminded us that they shouldn't be overlooked. Perhaps more than anything else, that's what Jimenez did for the division race.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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