Henning: Tigers prospect Jimenez one to keep an eye on

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Non-roster pitcher Joe Jimenez works in the sixth inning against Florida Southern Monday.

Lakeland, Fla. — You might have noticed the Tigers bullpen in recent years. It wasn’t always good. And one reason it wasn’t always airtight is there were too few guys emerging from the bushes who could throw a fastball or slider past a late-innings hitter with a game in the balance.

This is a tradition the Tigers would prefer to ashcan immediately. One person who could help there is Joe Jimenez, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound gent who throws right-handed and who five weeks ago turned 21.

He has been on the Tigers’ hotshot prospect list (it is not crowded) since the team signed him, rather craftily, following the 2013 draft.

Then a Puerto Rican teen, Jimenez had held out for big money that never arrived. The Tigers gambled on a post-draft offer. Jimenez bit. And since he signed that summer of 2013, he has been exceptional: 71 games, 1.64 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, .175 opposing batting average, 126 strikeouts and 23 walks in 872/3 innings.

Monday, he pitched for the Tigers in their annual goodwill opener against Florida Southern at Marchant Stadium. If you sidestep the first batter he faced, who hit a high, 1-and-0 fastball into the right-field bullpen, Jimenez was Jimenez. He struck out the next three batters on a flurry of mid-90s fastballs, coupled with tough sliders, accented by a single two-seamer.

“He throws hard,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said after the Tigers had whipped the Moccasins, 7-2. “The kid for Florida Southern (Sam Machonis) was sitting heater, got the barrel of the bat on it, and hit it hard.

“But he (Jimenez) certainly has a powerful arm.”

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Nothing about Monday’s stint, against college kids, had much influence on Jimenez’s portfolio or on his potential. The file on him is fairly tidy: Fire the fastball in helpful spots, make sure that slider has a tight arc, and work on a third pitch, which Jimenez believes will be a change-up mixed with the two-seam sinker he began earnestly adding to his lunch bucket in 2015 when he worked at Single A West Michigan.

“I’m not in a hurry,” Jimenez said afterward, sitting at a black metal picnic table outside the Tigers clubhouse. “I’m comfortable with how they’re using me. I’m relaxed, and I’ll play wherever they put me. If it isn’t at Lakeland (high Single A), I’ll do whatever I can do best for the Tigers.”

Double A on horizon

In fact, the Tigers are pondering shipping Jimenez rather soon to Double A Erie. They’ll see how things go this spring. But there are notions Jimenez will pitch at some point this year at Erie and at the moment the only real question is when.

Of course, if all goes well at Double A, for any prospect, a big league ticket can be a phone call away. The Tigers aren’t getting ahead of themselves. But they have a budding thoroughbred here and have known it since they stole him out of Puerto Rico.

He throws his four-seam fastball in the 95-97-mph range, and in last season’s Midwest League Championship series he hit 98 and 99.

“Maybe it was the intensity of the game,” Jimenez said Monday, explaining how, at the end of a long season, he found another gear.

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The slider can be vicious and is his out-pitch. He’ll work on his change-up as one of 2016’s priorities.

Tapping his elders

He’ll do it all with the counsel of some elders in that Tigers clubhouse.

“Francisco Rodriguez,” he said, speaking of the Tigers’ new closer who has been passing on wisdom. “I’ve been learning from him a lot.

“Anibal Sanchez, too. I’m trying to get as much as I can from them.”

But it takes time. And innings. And the hard lessons that can come only from throwing a steady battery of pitches against hitters who in some cases are moving north on the food chain every bit as rapidly.

Jimenez will be allowed time. But it might be wise to follow a certain man’s pitching lines in 2016. Annually, they have been very good. Another summer of the same and Detroit will have gotten tantalizingly close.