Every year, writers point out a young player or two that have impressed the Detroit Tigers brass in spring training. Steven Moya was once praised for his light-tower power. Michael Fulmer received gobs of attention last year (and for good reason). Nick Castellanos, Bruce Rondon... you get the idea. Optimism runs rampant during the spring, and it shows in the quotes we receive from players and management alike.
This year’s early candidate for Most Impressive Youngster seems to be reliever Joe Jimenez. Still a prospect after infamously not getting called up in 2016, Jimenez has already impressed James McCann. The stuff is obviously there, with a mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider that already appears major league ready. McCann was quick to note Jimenez has “a really good changeup” as well, which may or may not make an appearance in his late inning appearances.
McCann was also impressed with Jimenez’s presence on the mound.
“A lot of young guys come out, and they want to make such an impression and get going and work really fast and they lose their rhythm and lose what the ultimate goal of throwing a bullpen is, as they try to impress,” McCann said. “He didn’t do that. He pitched with a very good pace and made adjustments from pitch to pitch.”
Jimenez told reporters that his goal is to make the major league roster. Stuff-wise, it sounds like he’s ready. We clamored for his call-up last June, and our opinion hasn’t changed much.
However, he faces too many obstacles to get the call for Opening Day.
He’s not on the 40-man roster
This can be fixed, obviously. But the Tigers came into camp with a full 40-man roster, and will do everything they can to hold onto all 40 assets throughout spring training. They have 24 pitchers on the roster, nearly all of whom are more likely to see the field on Opening Day than Jimenez.
One potential path for Jimenez to make the leap onto the 40-man is later this spring when the Tigers have to make a decision on their crowded outfield. Tyler Collins, Steven Moya, and infielder Dixon Machado are all out of minor league options. Machado seems like a near-lock to make the roster due to his versatility, leaving one likely spot between Collins and Moya. Assuming the loser of this position battle is shuttled off the roster in some way, this could open up a spot for Jimenez. However, with the outfield picture still in flux, the Tigers may look to bring aboard one of the several potential center fielders they have in camp.
The organization wants to slow his development
Like children who can’t wait to open presents on Christmas, we howled for Jimenez throughout large swathes of 2016. General manager Al Avila effectively shut those rumors down soon after, sending Jimenez to Instructional League following the conclusion of the minor league season. Manager Brad Ausmus and others were quick to point out areas where Jimenez still needs to improve. Notably, Jimenez’s secondary pitches are still a work in progress.
Luckily, that seems to be changing. Jimenez has tweaked his slider grip already this spring, but it “has made significant progress” so far. McCann also noted improvements in Jimenez’s changeup, another potential weapon to pair with the mid-90s heat. We may see Jimenez put up more dazzling numbers throughout the spring, but the organization will want to see longer stretches of dominance before throwing him into the fire in the big leagues.
The bullpen is already full
Spring training position battles are fun to watch, but things might be rather dull in Lakeland this year. The Tigers already have most of their bullpen spots accounted for, depending on what happens with starters Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey. Assuming one of them lands in the rotation — let’s be honest, it’s Sanchez — the other will likely head to the ‘pen. That player, closer Francisco Rodriguez, and veteran Mark Lowe are all out of minor league options, taking up three of seven spots. Rule 5 selection Daniel Stumpf likely takes a fourth spot, with Justin Wilson sliding in as another lefthander. This leaves just two potential openings, and righthanders Shane Greene, Bruce Rondon, and Alex Wilson are the leaders to man those positions. Righty Drew VerHagen is also out of minor league options, though there is a chance he gets a fourth after missing most of 2016 with an injury.
There are some potential openings, sure. The Tigers have not been shy about sending Rule 5 selections packing, as they did with infielder Jeff Kobernus in 2013. However, if Stumpf is dumped, the Tigers will likely opt for another lefthander over someone like Jimenez. Injuries could also force the Tigers’ hand, but then they face the aforementioned obstacles on the 40-man roster.
If anything, Jimenez’s best chance at the Opening Day roster lies with Pelfrey and Lowe. If one of them is moved off the roster during spring training, that could open the door for the young flamethrower. It would add another high octane arm to the bullpen mix, pairing well with Greene, Rondon, and Justin Wilson. While that still may not be enough to get Jimenez on the Opening Day roster, we will undoubtedly see him in Detroit sometime this season.