Tigers prospect Jimenez flashes big fastball, talent

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Angel Nesbitt's rise through the Tigers farm chain, and arrival in Detroit where he has been a stress-reliever for a bullpen that cried for one, at least reminds the Tigers that relievers can be groomed.

Joe Jimenez should be another testament there. In time, anyway.

Jimenez, who turned 20 in January, is carrying through at Single A West Michigan with yet another handsome season. He has been knocking out nice numbers and lighting up scouting reports since the Tigers signed — or, as some would say, stole — him in June of 2013 after big bonus dreams, and a scholarship from Florida International, scared away clubs and kept him from being drafted after he wrapped up high school in Puerto Rico.

The Tigers got to work post-draft and signed him as a free agent for money (low six figures) that didn't match his and his family's earlier goals.

What they got was a right-hander, now 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, with some of the best raw talent of any pitcher in the Tigers farm system.

"He's a big, strong kid with an overpowering fastball," said Mark Johnson, the former Tigers pitcher who now is pitching coach at West Michigan. "What I like is, he's very coachable.

"He's got a slider he can throw for strikes, and a change-up that's a work in progress. But he wants to learn."

Jimenez has pitched in eight games for the Whitecaps covering 61/3 innings. He has allowed two hits, struck out 13 and walked two. It's pretty much a continuation of his 2014 season, when in 23 games at Single A Connecticut he had a 2.70 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP, and a .218 opposing batting average.

His first year, 2013, as an 18-year-old with the Gulf Coast League Tigers, Jimenez worked eight games and 18 innings. His numbers: 0.50 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, .155 opposing batting average.

It's the power arm that best details Jimenez's pluses. Which, of course, means he lives by his fastball.

"Mainly four-seam, but it's a mid-90s, plus-fastball," said Johnson, who pitched for the Tigers in 2000. "Who knows when he fully develops where it's going to be, but I had him in Connecticut last year, and we had him at 98 (mph).

"Some scouts had him at 100, but our gun was at 98. At times he sits 95, 96, and touches 97. Other times, he's 90 to 95. But the other day (most recent appearance) he was 95 to 97.

"It's going to be fun to watch his progress."

Jimenez's slider has enough bite to be a nasty second pitch — as long as it stays low in the zone. That's anything but a given at this stage of a youngster's development, which is also the case for that essential third pitch, his change-up.

"We're looking to find a grip that's comfortable," Johnson said. "Right now, it's more of a circle change.

"He's getting confidence in it and using it in games. But the change-up is always a 'feel' pitch."

Jimenez, of course, has company at West Michigan, where a team's trademark is its bullpen.

Johan Belisario (21, 0.66 ERA in nine games), Paul Voelker (22, 2.25 ERA in 10 games), Gabe Speier (20, left-hander with 2.25 ERA in eight games) and Gabe Hemmer (24, 0.60 ERA in 10 games) have given Johnson and Whitecaps manager Andrew Graham the kind of insurance a team in Detroit will happily welcome.

Again, perhaps in time. Relief pitching is notoriously mercurial and that applies to prospects as much as to guys who advance.

"For me, almost any of those guys can pitch anywhere late in a game," Johnson said. "And that's so important for their development.

"You need a guy who can pitch the sixth, seventh, eighth, or close — guys who can do all those roles. For this level, that's huge, to have that kind of flexibility in your development."

Johnson added, with a soft chuckle:

"Because most of them know when they get to the big leagues, they might not be closing anyway."