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Tigers’ Joe Jimenez has the inside track on an Opening Day roster spot

A disappointing 2017 is giving way to optimism this spring.

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at Toronto Blue Jays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The focus on the Detroit Tigers organization this season is going to largely reside with the farm system, and with the team’s tradable assets. The success of players like Michael Fulmer, Shane Greene, and Daniel Norris will have a lot of bearing on the Tigers’ future. As a recently baptized major league rookie, Joe Jimenez doesn’t fit into either description. Instead, he is one of the first pieces of the next wave of Tigers prospects to reach the majors.

The big right-hander had a disappointing rookie campaign last year. It was all the worse because the Tigers’ bullpen really needed the help. He rarely resembled the dominant strikeout artist who roared through the Tigers’ farm system in 2016. His goal this season is to improve his command and rebuild the strikeout touch and low walk rates he posted in the minor leagues.

Jimenez and pitching coach Chris Bosio have put in the work this offseason and spring to unlock his potential. The effort actually started with Hurricane Maria, which made it difficult for Jimenez to return home to his native Puerto Rico. His parents encouraged him to stay and train at the Tigers’ complex in Lakeland over the winter, until the island had begun its recovery. An understandably concerned Jimenez focused his frustration into the one thing he could control: his offseason conditioning.

What followed was an almost daily stream of Instagram posts documenting his routine in the Tigers’ strength and conditioning complex. Between the organization’s increased emphasis on nutrition this spring and Jimenez’s work ethic, the 22-year-old came into camp in excellent shape. A somewhat rocky start this spring has given way to a series of strong outings in the Grapefruit League. Most recently, Jimenez punched out the side to earn a save against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday.

Bosio’s impact on Jimenez has been evident in the improved depth on his slider. Bosio initiated a grip change on the pitch, and so far the results have been encouraging. In fact, all three of Jimenez’s pitches have looked crisp since the beginning of March, and he seems to be rounding into form. He has shown better command than for much of the 2017 season. It’s far too early to say that Jimenez is going to sustain this, but you can probably book a spot on the Opening Day roster.

One other notable difference in this spring’s version of Jimenez is the spark of life in his fastball. For much of the 2017 season, he didn’t have the extension and hop that was apparent during his run through the Tigers’ farm system in 2016. For a pitcher with a well above-average spin rate on his four-seam fastball, Jimenez wasn’t getting the riding action and late tail he needs to be successful. He appeared to be over-rotating in his wind-up and his arm struggled to catch up. As a result, his pitches were often flat and poorly located.

The first image is Jimenez is April 2017, and the second is Jimenez on Sunday.

2017 Jimenez
Jimenez 2018 Spring Training

Jimenez appears to be controlling his hip rotation a little better this spring, whereas last year he was over-rotating, closing up his left hip to point almost toward third base. The adjustment has him on line and driving directly to the plate, which is good for his command. It also avoids the arm lag that saw him hanging lifeless stuff up over the plate. It’s a subtle change, but so far he appears to be getting a little more extension and, consequently, improved life on each of his pitches. Both his slider and changeup have been impressive, and now the opportunity to take a bullpen spot is within Jimenez’ grasp.

The competition isn’t exactly stiff. Buck Farmer seems destined for the bullpen, and Johnny Barbato and Warwick Saupold are in contention as the roster battle heats up. The Tigers seem to have unending faith in Drew VerHagen, who has had a solid spring thus far. Zac Reininger has struggled mightily with his command. But of that group, only Farmer and perhaps Reininger hold much intrigue. The element lacking in just about anyone not named Jimenez is the stuff to eventually tackle a late innings role.

Potentially, Jimenez is a shutdown reliever who anchors the Tigers bullpen for years to come. He could also find himself dealt away for prospects along the way. Good relievers are the currency of the realm in baseball right now, so a strong campaign from Jimenez could see his stock skyrocket as a possible trade chip. Either way, the pressure to rescue Detroit’s bullpen last year is behind him. The hype is over. The work of transforming himself into a quality late innings reliever continues.