There is a silver lining to all the pain the fans have experienced over the past few seasons. Yes, the Detroit Tigers are a mess on the field, but the team is getting younger. By trading away expensive veterans or letting their contracts expire, the Tigers are steadily adding youth and upside in favor of age and experience.
One thing that comes with a young team is growing pains. You will generally see young players struggle before they succeed. We’re seeing that right now with Joe Jimenez.
Jimenez’s struggles are a microcosm of the Tigers’ young talent, and the rebuild as a whole. He has shown us a mix of good, average, and horrendous performances. I would argue that everything is going as expected. Knowledgeable observers never thought that Jimenez was going to be called up in August and strikeout every batter he faced. Sometimes a good, young prospect hits the ground running. More often, you see wild inconsistency before a player finally settles in and performs to their ability. Believing a player is an excellent prospect isn’t the same thing as expecting brilliance right out of the gate.
Far too many people are giving up on Jimenez already. Yes, it’s frustrating to see the “next great closer” struggle, but he earned all of that hype by dominating at every level of the minor leagues. Just because he hasn’t been lights out in his first 14 1⁄3 innings in the majors doesn’t mean he won’t become a good, or even great reliever in the coming years.
There are plenty of great closers that had a terrible first season. Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer ever, had a 5.51 ERA and a 5.15 FIP with a 16.9 percent strikeout rate in 67 innings during his first major league season. He began his career as a starter but, appeared in nine games in relief down the stretch of his rookie season in addition to those starts. In those nine appearances, Rivera pitched 17 innings. He allowed eight earned runs on seven hits and 10 walks with 13 strikeouts. Those numbers were better than his results as a starter, but his ERA was still well over 4.00.
Joe Jimenez is almost certainly not going to approach Rivera’s career. However, even the best players tend to struggle when they reach the majors, no matter what their minor league numbers looked like.
Do you remember Corey Knebel? Yeah, he’s locking down games for the Milwaukee Brewers now, but once upon a time he was an excellent relief prospect for the Tigers. He pitched just under nine innings for Detroit in 2014, putting up a 6.23 ERA with a 1.63 FIP. His peripherals looked good, with a 28 percent strikeout rate and a walk rate under eight percent, but the overall results took time. Knebel came into the league with much more minor league experience than Joe Jimenez, but couldn’t quite put it together for several years despite the high strikeout rate and electric stuff. Suddenly, in 2017, Knebel is one of the most dominant relievers in the game.
This season, Knebel has a 1.38 ERA and a 2.33 FIP in 65 innings, including 32 saves. He is tied with Craig Kimbrel in strikeouts with 109, best among all MLB relievers. Had the Brewers reacted to his early struggles the way many Tigers fans are reacting to Jimenez, the Brewers would have made a very bad decision to move on from Knebel before he ever really got settled in.
Struggling like Jimenez has is a good test for him, just like it was a good test for all the relievers mentioned above. It will also be a good test for any of the Tigers prospects that are called up in the future. But this all makes sense. Jimenez was regarded as a very good relief prospect, but he wasn’t a once-in-a-generation talent like Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel. Jimenez cruised through the minor leagues in little more than two seasons. He didn’t face any real adversity along that path. Now he has. How he responds over the next few seasons that will determine the course of his career. The same goes for any of the Tigers’ prospects; how they overcome adversity after being called up will define their career, no matter how good or bad their rookie season is.
Based on every report from those who follow the Tigers farm system, Jimenez has the mentality to overcome the struggles he has experienced. Doing so will only make him a better pitcher down the road. This is all part of the process, and it’s a process that Tigers fans will have to become acquainted with rather quickly. We will see this again as more young players experience these growing pains during the rebuild. Every player hits a wall at some point and has to surmount it. Most of them won’t get as far as Jimenez before that happens. The quality that is most required now, is the one many have in shortest supply at the moment: patience.