It's not often that a team will move a teenage pitcher to the bullpen. With so much development time and projection ahead of them, teams will let young pitchers start for as long as possible in hopes that they develop into a rotation stalwart. Even pitchers with limited upside are given as many innings as possible. Starters are more valuable than all but the most elite relievers, so it makes sense to try and create as many of them as possible. Not all of them work out, and it is usually then that you see a pitcher get moved to the bullpen.
The Tigers did not do this with Joe Jimenez, a 20-year-old right-hander from Puerto Rico. Even during his age 19 season, the Tigers stuck Jimenez in the bullpen with hopes that his powerful arsenal -- he throws a sinker and a slider -- will help him develop into a future closer. There are no rumblings of moving Jimenez back into the rotation, so we could see a fairly quick ascent if he continues to put up dominant numbers. Assuming he gets sent to West Michigan, the 2015 season could tell us a lot about what to expect from Jimenez in the future.
The Tigers signed Jimenez as an undrafted free agent out of Puerto Rico in 2013. Jimenez was viewed as a talented pitcher who could have been selected in the top 10 rounds -- Perfect Game ranked him as the #2 overall prospect from Puerto Rico that year -- but lofty bonus demands scared enough teams away that he fell off the board entirely. Jimenez started off his pro career with a bang, allowing just one run while striking out 24 batters in 18 innings in the Gulf Coast League in 2013. He held opponents to just 4.5 hits per nine innings and a 0.83 WHIP.
The Tigers moved him up to the New York-Penn League in 2014 where he was nearly as dominant. Jimenez allowed a 2.70 ERA and 1.75 FIP in 26 2/3 innings, striking out 41 batters to just six walks. Jimenez continued his dominance in the Puerto Rican Winter League. TigsTown's Paul Wezner provided an update on January 5th.
In 12 appearances (spanning 12 2/3 innings), Jimenez has yet to allow a single earned run, and has allowed just three hits in total, good for .081 average against. He’s also walked one batter, while striking out 15.
While the Puerto Rican league isn't as talent-rich as those in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic, it's still nice to see him putting up dominant numbers.
There is a lot to like about Jimenez. Jordan Gorosh ranked him 17th on our prospect list last year, though that was when we all thought the Tigers were going to develop him as a starter. Here's what Jordan had to say about Jimenez's electric arsenal.
Jimenez consistently attacks hitters, especially ones that are overmatched by his pure stuff. In the Gulf Coast League, he went right after guys, spotted his fastball inside and outside, and could change eye level with it. His slider is the put-away pitch for now, and with more refinement, should be able to play at a plus level relatively soon. Mechanically, Jimenez has a loose, somewhat long arm action. He shows the ball a bit behind his body, kind of like Jeff Hoffman from East Carolina University, a top pitcher in this year's draft. He doesn't look to have any mechanical red flags, and repeats his delivery well. His breaking pitches come from the same arm slot as his fastball, although he could stand to maintain arm speed on the change up a bit better. Due to his relatively smooth and repeatable delivery, the command and control profiles are each solid, major league average, or a tick above profiles. Remember, this is a kid who just turned 19.
Jimenez's fastball consistently sits in the mid-90s when working out of the bullpen -- he apparently hit triple digits on the radar gun ($) at one point last season -- and the slider is still his out pitch. There is not much new information available on his changeup or curveball, so it looks as if he has scrapped both of those pitches in favor of the power fastball-slider combination.
John Sickels of Minor League Ball was similarly optimistic about Jimenez, ranking him 14th on his 2015 Tigers prospect rankings.
High-strikeout, low-walk reliever with mid-90s heat, great track record thus far. Always tough to rank relief prospects but he should make some noise in full-season ball and rank higher next year.
Sickels has been on the Jimenez bandwagon from day one as well, ranking him 16th on his 2014 list and correctly nailing him as a potential sleeper among all MLB prospects. Jimenez also ranked ninth on Baseball Prospectus' Tigers prospect rankings.
There are absolutely no statistical red flags with Jimenez right now, so it's tough to pick out any legitimate weaknesses he will have as a reliever. Part of this is because of how dominant he has been. He has only faced overmatched competition so far in his career, so we don't really know what his weaknesses are. His changeup was (or is) not his best pitch, and reports indicate that he tends to slow his arm down when throwing it. He may continue to develop it as he moves through the minors, but it may also be scrapped altogether.
MLB.com, who also ranked him 18th on their organizational rankings, indicated that Jimenez needs to improve his command as he moves through the minors. He hasn't run into any problems yet -- he only has 12 walks on his professional résumé in two years -- but advanced hitters will be able to handle his premium stuff if he doesn't locate it well.
Video via Jordan Gorosh and MLB Farm
Projected team: West Michigan Whitecaps
Even as a reliever, Jimenez is a few years away from making it to the majors. He had a dominant season last year in short-season ball, but the advanced college hitters scattered throughout the Midwest League should provide a decent challenge for him. While it would be nice to see him dominate at this level too, a poor season doesn't spell the end for Jimenez's prospect stock. He will be one of the younger players in Single-A ball this year and has the raw talent to be a great pitcher down the line. If he does well, expect him to shoot into the top 10 next year.
New addition: Jose Valdez, right-handed pitcher
A mainstay on the Tigers' 40 man roster for the past few years, Valdez still has yet to make his MLB debut. He struggled at times in 2014, allowing a 4.11 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 57 innings for Double-A Erie. Valdez is capable of hitting the high 90s on the radar gun with his fastball, but has the prerequisite command issues that come with that kind of velocity. He has struck out over a batter per inning in the minors with his two-pitch arsenal, but has also walked over five per nine innings. If he displays more control, he could finally crack the big leagues in 2015.