It's the bottom of the ninth inning in a series-clinching playoff game. Your team leads by one run after a furious comeback, and the bullpen has narrowly escaped jams in the past two innings. Now, your closer is coming in with the season on the line.
This situation would terrify most Detroit Tigers fans given their luck with relievers over the past several years, but it actually took place in their organization last season. With the West Michigan Whitecaps clinging to a narrow lead in the final game of the Midwest League Championship Series, righthander Joe Jimenez slammed the door, striking out the side to clinch the Whitecaps' first league title since 2007.
That the then-20-year-old Jimenez was called on to handle the ninth is no accident. An undrafted free agent out of Puerto Rico, Jimenez has considerable potential, with a high-90s fastball and wipeout slider at his disposal. He made mincemeat of the Midwest League in 2015, holding opponents to a 1.47 ERA and 5.55 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings.
He is still a few levels away from the major leagues, but Jimenez is already one of the Tigers' top prospects, ranking inside the top 10 on five of six major lists in 2016.
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While Jimenez went undrafted in 2013, he was viewed as a potential high-round draft pick. The reasons why he wasn't selected aren't clear -- some say his salary demands were the main deterrent for teams -- but he obviously has top-round talent. Jimenez's fastball sits anywhere from 95 to 98 miles per hour on the radar gun, and Baseball Prospectus' Chris Crawfords hints at some potential triple-digit heat. The fastball also has some late life to it, resulting in a lot of weak contact -- if hitters make contact at all. His 37.7 percent strikeout rate in 2015 hints at a lot of the latter.
Jimenez's secondary pitch is a slider that sits in the high 80s. It appeared to take a step forward in 2015, as many evaluators are now raving over it after expressing cautious optimism a year ago. Crawford called it a "swing-and-miss pitch," while TigsTown's Mark Anderson and MLB.com both labeled it a potential plus pitch. FanGraphs' Dan Farnsworth echoed that ceiling, while Minor League Ball's John Sickels says it's already there. Jimenez all but scrapped his changeup in 2015, but still held lefties to a .530 OPS.
One of Jimenez's biggest weaknesses is his command, a deficiency that kept him in Single-A West Michigan for most of the year. However, Farnsworth praised Jimenez's "athletic delivery and easy velocity" as reason why he "keeps both pitches in the zone regularly." MLB.com parroted this sentiment, saying "he throws a lot more strikes than you would expect given his age." Case in point: Jimenez allowed just 11 walks in 43 innings last season.
Jimenez has the control to keep pitches in the strike zone, but his command is still lacking, per many sources. He was able to get by while facing Midwest League hitters, but will need to split the plate in half to keep advanced hitters off balance. If Jimenez learns to spot his fastball on the inner and outer halves of the plate -- or throw his slider for strikes consistently -- look out.
Other than Jimenez's command, his biggest 'weakness' is his distance from the majors. His most recent scouting reports have drooled over his high-octane potential, but his 2015 success was largely against overmatched college bats who still struggle with plus stuff. Jimenez will start to struggle as he move up the ladder, and he will need to prove he can handle that adversity. Anderson called Jimenez "an aggressive and emotional pitcher on the mound," which can be both good and bad.
Evaluation: Chris Crawford, Baseball Prospectus
There aren’t many pure bullpen arms who have the type of stuff Jimenez does. The right-hander sits in the mid-90s, consistently touching higher, with the occasional report of triple-digits...He pounds the strike zones with both pitches, and though the command is a ways behind the control, it projects well enough that Jimenez should be a high-leverage reliever sometime in the near future, with one scout comparing him to a "poor man’s Armando Benitez." Excited yet?
Projected team: Advanced-A Lakeland
It wouldn't be surprising to see the Tigers push Jimenez to Double-A Erie this season, but their sluggish approach with him thus far suggests he will start the season in the Florida State League. He dominated in his first stretch of full season ball, and should be able to handle a midseason promotion if this continues, but the Tigers will likely keep him in the minors for another full season with eyes on a potential big league debut in 2017. There's an outside shot he sees the majors this year, but it would take a whale of a season to get there.
Note: We're changing up our prospect coverage a bit this year. Instead of an "official" ranking of the best prospects in the system, we're going to profile those that are most interesting to us (and you too, hopefully). Don't worry, no one has been fired, and daily recaps will still happen during the season. We appreciate any constructive feedback you offer, and we'll take your prospect suggestions into account as well.