Jimenez’s dramatic struggles have Orioles in unenviable position

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The Orioles weren’t expecting Ubaldo Jimenez to be their ace in 2016.

Manager Buck Showalter probably would have taken a repeat of last season in which he posted an unspectacular but acceptable 4.11 ERA, even if it did include a 5.63 mark in the second half after a sparkling 2.81 ERA before the All-Star break. With so many questions about their starting rotation entering the season, the Orioles needed Jimenez to be more 2015 than the 2014 version of himself.

So far, they haven’t even gotten the latter model as another poor performance Saturday elevated his ERA to 6.36, third worst among qualified pitchers in the majors entering Sunday. He’s averaged 5.2 walks per nine innings and opponents have a .375 batting average on balls in play against him, numbers suggesting he’s been both bad and unlucky this season.

And it’s only getting worse as the 32-year-old has posted a 10.26 ERA over his last four starts with the Orioles losing the last three in blowout fashion. Jimenez has walked 14 in 16 2/3 innings over that time, perhaps the clearest barometer of his inability to give his club much of a chance to win these days.

Making matters worse, Jimenez allowed four stolen bases in Saturday’s game and opponents have stolen 11 bases against him already this season, another of Showalter’s pet peeves.

Something has to give — and soon.

Showalter said before Sunday’s finale in Cleveland that Jimenez is listed as the “projected” starter for the series finale against Boston this week. The thought of the struggling right-hander facing the best lineup in baseball on Thursday almost appears cruel at this point, but the Orioles’ alternatives are limited.

Unlike two years ago when Jimenez lost his spot in the starting rotation, there isn’t a Kevin Gausman waiting to take his place. It’s no coincidence that Yovani Gallardo will make his first minor-league rehab start on the same day Jimenez is set to make his next start, but the former may need another start or two after that in his recovery from right shoulder tendinitis.

Even if you decide that Gallardo — or Vance Worley or T.J. McFarland or anyone else — takes his rotation spot, what do you do with the struggling veteran?

Despite many fans continuing to call for it, the Orioles aren’t releasing a pitcher owed the remainder of his $13 million salary this year and another $13.5 million in 2017. Unless you have two or three legitimate pitching prospects waiting at Triple A to take the next step, you don’t dump a pitcher who showed he was able to pitch at a high level for a significant portion of last season when he’s owed so much money — even if it might amount to little more than a way-too-expensive lottery ticket at this point.

Do you just send Jimenez to the bullpen? The problem with that is you can only count on him for mop-up duty and one of the last things you want in a long reliever is to walk hitters when you’re just trying to eat low-leverage innings. At the very least, it would give him opportunities for side sessions to try to fix his mechanics, something not easy to do when you have just four days between starts.

Will the Orioles find a physical issue — authentic or not — that would allow them to put him on the disabled list? Two years ago, an ankle injury met with plenty of outside skepticism allowed Jimenez to rehab and pitch in two minor-league games before he was activated roughly a month later.

Even if Jimenez can reverse his latest struggles, how much can you trust him to pitch for a contender?

Of course, these alternatives aren’t preferable to Jimenez doing the job the Orioles are paying him handsomely to do. Nearly 2 1/2 years into their marriage, the right-hander has turned in one excellent half of pitching with occasional good starts sprinkled in the rest of the time.

His woes aren’t from a lack of effort, but the well-liked Jimenez just isn’t getting the job done.

The Orioles find themselves back in the same position they experienced two year ago, in contention and needing to replace him.

It appears time for a change.