Labeling a player as “the closer of the future” is a very good way for a prospect evaluator to fall on his face. Relief pitchers are notoriously mercurial, the riskiest players in the game of baseball. Detroit Tigers righthander Bruce Rondon is a good example of that. Once a slam-dunk prospect guaranteed to lock down the ninth inning for years to come, his struggles with having any idea where his 101 mile-per-hour fastball was going led to him being effective in one outing and getting pounded the next — and his case is one of the sunnier ones in recent memory.
There are many incidences of a pitcher with sky-high potential being unable to harness his monster fastball and quickly washing out. Fortunately for Tigers fans, the most recent "closer of the future" doesn't have the control issues that many never shake. That player is Joe Jimenez.
Jimenez’s story is a well-publicized one. After going undrafted in 2013 due to high signing bonus demands, the Tigers did what the Tigers do and nabbed the hard-throwing right on a $100,000 contract. They knew that he would bring a high-octane fastball and a promising slider. What they didn’t know what just how good those two offerings were going to become.
As hard-throwing pitching prospects usually do, Jimenez dominated the low minors. He struck guys out left and right in a short stint in rookie ball, putting on a show that was followed up by an equally excellent 2015 in with the West Michigan Whitecaps. He didn’t show his true potential until 2016, though. Starting in High-A Lakeland as the Flying Tigers’ closer, Jimenez allowed only five walks and struck out 28 in 17 1⁄3 innings. Jimenez didn’t slow down after a promotion to Double-A. He was still a force to be reckoned with in the SeaWolves’ bullpen, putting up a 2.18 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 20 2⁄3 innings. He did not allow a single earned run until his 27th appearance on the year!
That would have been one heck of a year, but Jimenez was not done. This stunning performance in Double-A got him a spot on the Triple-A toledo pitching staff of the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens. he transitioned smoothly, and only surrendered a .164 average, 0.83 WHIP and 2.30 ERA in 17 games with Toledo.
Minor League Ball’s John Sickels notes that Jimenez has no real changeup, but the two pitches he does have — a fastball and a slider — are both high-caliber offerings. Jimenez’s heater could rival those of even the best major league flamethrowers, and is the better of his two pitches. It sits at 96 miles per hour out of the bullpen, and he regularly runs it up to 98 mph, even reportedly touched triple digits at times.
The most recent report on the Tigers’ farm from Baseball Prospectus is very kind to Jimenez. They describe his fastball in more depth.
The pitch has plus boring action, eliciting ugly swings and weak pop-ups on a regular basis. He throws strikes and can spot it to both sides of the plate.
Note: ‘Boring action’ is synonymous to ‘running action’, meaning it come onto the hands of right-handed hitters.
BP is also quite bullish on Jimenez’s slider, saying it is already a plus pitch.
His slider is also a plus-to-better offering featuring large break and depth. It has plus action with bite, and given its velo difference (85-86) off the fastball, it can be tough for hitters to time up. His low-three-quarters slot makes it tougher for right-handers to pick up the ball out of his hand.
Part of what makes Jimenez such an excellent pitcher is his mentality. Former Tigers closer and current pitching instructor Todd Jones gave a glowing review of how Jimenez approaches the game.
“It's really just about them being more consistent with their pitches. Joe has a tendency to want to try to throw harder and want to make each slider better than the last slider. If he can realize that you don't have to do anything different at each level you move up, he's going to be fine.”
A dominant force out of the bullpen, Jimenez almost forced his way to Detroit. His blazing fastball and devilish slider would be a good thing to have at the major league level, as the Tigers’ pen is in need of stability. With players like Justin Wilson, who was bad for no reason last year, Shane Greene, the pitcher who practically defines streaky, and Francisco Rodriguez, an aging closer who suffers the occasional implosion, representing the best options for relief, it is fair to say that a stabilizing hand is needed. Jimenez, if he lives up to the hype and his stuff transitions well to the majors, could be just that.
The only thing that puts a ceiling on Jimenez’s game is the fact he isn’t a starting pitcher. While it doesn’t affect his prospect status, his age is also a drawback. Despite how badly fans may want to see Jimenez on the 25-man roster on Opening Day, Tigers general manager Al Avila disagrees.
I know there was a big push for him to come up [to Detroit], but trust me that it would not have been in his best interests or our best interests. We don’t want to go through the same mistake we did with Bruce [Rondon] in the past, where it just didn’t work out right away. We want to be a little bit more cautious with Jimenez.
What is the timeline that Avila has in mind for Jimenez? He went on to say that while the righty will likely be in the bigs at some point in 2017, even if it is not immediately.
I’m hopeful he can contribute to our success at some point in 2017. I can’t rule out that right out of the chute in spring training. I’m not going to rule him out. You’ve got to give a guy an opportunity. But is it going to be a month, two months, three months in Toledo before he makes the impact? Obviously, that’s into play, too.
We may not see the relief phenom as soon as we want, but he is very close to the majors. While erring on the side of caution may be irritating at times, it will likely pay dividends in the long run. Who knows, maybe it will make his debut all the more enjoyable. Until then, we can only wait.
Jacob’s Scouting Report:
Projected Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
This one hurts to type. As much as the baseball lover and Tigers fan in me wants to fill in this section with promises of Jimenez being a part of the Tigers’ bullpen on Opening Day, I cannot. A combination of how little time he spent in Triple-A last year and general manager Al Avila’s comments — not to mention Jimenez’s 40-man roster status — make it hard for me to foresee any other outcome than Toledo fans getting a little more eye candy at the beginning of the year.