Photo Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images
By Anthony Fenech, Detroit Free Press
“Already possessing blazing fastball, the once overlooked 21-year-old righty getting polished, inching toward big leagues”
Back when Joe Jimenez started his professional baseball career three seasons ago, back when he was 18 years old and fresh out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy playing for the Gulf Coast League Tigers, he remembers organization officials giving him this advice:
“They always told me if I want to be in the big leagues, I have to throw strikes,” Jimenez said. “And that’s what I’m doing right now.”
But in this, his third full pro season, the big right-handed reliever is doing much more than just throwing strikes. He has been dominating, from Class A Lakeland, where he allowed zero earned runs in 17 appearances, to Double-A Erie, where he has allowed one run in his first 12 appearances at the most talent-rich level of the minor leagues.
He has become perhaps the most prized prospect in the Detroit Tigers’ farm system, a future closer who was recently selected to his second MLB All-Star Futures Game, an undrafted free agent signing whom the team is being careful not to cave into the pressures of rushing to the big leagues.
“We’re ecstatic about how well he’s pitched,” Tigers director of player development Dave Littlefield said. “We’re ecstatic with the way things have gone. He’s 21 and in Double-A and has had success and it’s basically July 1. So where it goes from here, obviously nobody knows. But we’re on the right path.”
Jimenez’s path to the big leagues will be paved by the development of his two secondary pitches, the slider and change-up. He has plenty of fastball, Littlefield said, and was promoted to Erie at the end of May to focus on firming up his slider.
“It’s doing good right now,” Jimenez said.
On Thursday night against Akron, he struck out Indians prospect Clint Frazier on the slider, with which he is trying to find more consistency, a harder, tighter pitch with a little more tilt to it.
“I think it’s pretty good,” Jimenez said. “I’m working on it everyday and working on it with (SeaWolves pitching coach) Willie Blair and I think it’s almost done.”
Said Lakeland manager Dave Huppert: “He might throw seven and four be real good ones and three just be spinners. Where the fans want him to pitch, late in the ballgame, you might not get away with those other three.”
With his slider in the final stages of big-league ready refinement, Jimenez will look towards improving the change-up in the second half, a crucial pitch to pair with his mid-to-upper 90s m.p.h. fastball.
“I’m working on it, I just haven’t had the chance to throw it a lot,” he said. “I’ve been getting a lot of outs with my fastball and slider but I’m planning on using it more in the second half.”
Still, Jimenez isn’t a sure thing to get a major league call-up this season.
There is the matter of his seasoning: The Tigers want to be sure he is big-league ready before throwing him into the fire.
Then, there is the issue of his workload: After an impressive 2015 season, posting a 1.47 ERA in 43 innings over 40 games with Class A West Michigan, he threw another 171/3 innings in the wintertime in Puerto Rico, striking out 23 and walking just one. Those performances earned him a ticket to his first big-league spring training, where he opened eyes, but also might have earned him some early rest this season.
“You have to be cautious in terms of pitches and months and their pitching and time on the mound,” Littlefield said. “And also the flip side is the downtime: You want them to have some rest. We’ve tried to keep an eye on that and manage that in a way where he still gets innings and challenged but at the same time, we’re cognizant of a long and challenging 2016 season.”
The pulse within the Tigers organization leans towards the latter of two schools of thought. The first is that Jimenez could be an impact arm who could help the team down the stretch, and perhaps fill a trade deadline need should he swim at the major league level if given the opportunity. The second, and more conservative, is the long-term approach, factoring in Jimenez’s youth and potential at the back of the bullpen.
“There’s a process,” Littlefield said. “There’s still a ways to go to become what we think he can become but he’s speeding up that process, for sure, with the way he’s pitched this year.”
The Tigers signed Jimenez as a free agent following the 2013 draft after scouting him extensively in Puerto Rico and having him throw a few bullpen sessions at Tiger Town.
“They’ve groomed a lot of pitchers — good pitchers — and I thought it was a good organization to be with,” Jimenez said.
And the Tigers are content on him getting all the grooming he needs — even if it means waiting some time for his skills to come to fruition at the big-league level.
“We’re not looking to develop a good Double-A pitcher,” Littlefield said. “We’re looking to develop a good major league pitcher.”
So far, Jimenez has shown those tools. They need refinement. But he is closer to making an impact in the big leagues than further away, which bodes well for the future of the Tigers bullpen, which could use a homegrown talent or two in order to allocate money and resources elsewhere instead of finding relievers on the free agent or trade markets like they have done for the past few seasons.
“It’s huge relative to value and the payroll and the number of years of control and that’s a great benefit in itself,” Littlefield said. “But when you have high-end talent, we’ll see where it goes with him but he’s got a chance to be a good reliever and you need a bunch of them.”
In the years to come — and even perhaps this season as the Tigers have yet to rule it out — they hope Jimenez will be one of those relievers. Until then, he is working under the same guidelines they’ve told him to follow from the start.
“Just doing the same thing,” he said. “Working ahead in the count, throwing strikes. I’m going to get good experience here, and I’m going to do the same thing I’m doing right now, just keeping on it.
“I just want to play and I’m proud to be wherever I am right now. So I just want to play baseball and I’m proud to wear a uniform of the Tigers, so I’m just going to finish wherever they want me to, whether it’s (Class A), Double-A or Triple-A or the big leagues. I’m just going to play and have fun.”
Anthony Fenech: email@example.com