The bullpen in Detroit, notorious for its occasional nosedives, needs all the help it can get.
A reliever at Double A Erie is all but untouchable this season. His talent is, and always was, considered elite by a Tigers team that signed him three years ago out of Puerto Rico.
Tigers students wonder why there’s a reluctance to ship Joe Jimenez and his whopping fastball to Detroit when the skilled 21-year-old right-hander has done nothing but crush hitters.
“He’s clearly dominating levels he’s pitched at,” said Dave Littlefield, Tigers vice president for player development. “We understand that. But he’s not a finished product.”
Jimenez, who is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, and throws a fastball that can cruise as high as 98 mph, allowed his first run this season during Saturday’s game at Hartford. He pitched one inning, was nicked for two hits and a walk, and despite his customary two strikeouts, Jimenez no longer owns a 0.00 ERA. It now sits at 0.90.
The breakdown, which began at Single A Lakeland ahead of his move to Erie earlier this month: 27 games, 271/3 innings, 11 hits, 46 strikeouts, seven walks, a .122 opposing batting average, and 15 saves in 15 save opportunities.
They are astounding numbers but not greatly different from those he rang up last year at Single A West Michigan (1.47 ERA in 40 games, 0.79 WHIP) or in 2014 at Single A Connecticut (2.70, 1.05), or in his 2013 cameo with the Gulf Coast League Tigers (0.50, 0.83).
This, on top of last winter’s 18-game stint in the Puerto Rican Winter League (2.60, 0.81).
Why, fans wonder, when he has now turned Double A hitters to ash would it not be expected that Jimenez could at least contribute, say as a replacement for Mark Lowe, in Detroit?
Littlefield says a pitching repertoire that’s incomplete must be considered along with an organization’s care for a prospect’s priceless arm. The consensus begins with general manager Al Avila and extends throughout a front-office chain and into the chambers of manager Brad Ausmus.
“We’ve taken the general position in this organization, beginning with Al and with Brad, that we’re looking at a 25-30 percent increase each year with pitchers,” said Littlefield, speaking about innings and pitches thrown. “Each guy is a little different, depending upon age, body type, and depending upon role and health history. But all of these things are kind of mixed into it.
“In Joe’s case, specifically, he had an outstanding year last year. He pitched 43 innings, then went to Puerto Rico for winter ball and had another 18 there. He pitched into January, and because he was pitching well, they (Carolina Gigantes) wanted to pitch him even longer.
“We decided it wasn’t the best thing for him to do for his career.”
The Tigers brought Jimenez to spring camp in Lakeland, Fla., but kept the brakes on. He was shut down from regular bullpen sessions for the remainder of January. He was used sparingly in February and into March.
And then it was off to Single A Lakeland where he began his torrid season.
As overwhelming as they appear, Littlefield says the numbers do not tell a comprehensive story about Jimenez and his big-league readiness.
He has that blur of a fastball and throws it pretty much where he wants. But the slider is still developing. And so, too, is his change-up. And not until he gets better command of at least one secondary pitch do the Tigers plan on turning him loose on big-league hitters.
“Everybody thinks that the guy doing well in the minors is the answer,” Ausmus said last week in a retort to suggestions Jimenez be shipped to Detroit. “But there’s a huge difference between Double A and major-league hitters.
“I think Joe Jimenez has a chance to be a good major-league pitcher — he certainly has a plus fastball. But it takes a really special fastball to pitch with just one pitch, even as a reliever. He’s still developing. He has a chance to be a good major-league pitcher. But to rush him just because he’s had a good three months, and stunt his development, would be a bad decision.”
Littlefield, not surprisingly, agrees. He says the Tigers front office, as well as medical consultants, are one in their thinking: Jimenez’s best spot for now is Erie.
“Joe’s had an incredible run, but he’s still working on things,” Littlefield said of a prospect the Tigers signed hurriedly in June 2013 after his big-money demands caused him to fall from that year’s amateur draft. “He’s throwing a lot of strikes, and that’s obviously a good sign, and he has that plus fastball as a dominant pitch.
“But what Brad said is very true. This is the minor leagues, and in the minors you might have some success with one dominant pitch. Joe’s got a change-up that’s solid, and a slider, as well, that’s a work in progress. But some of our development staff, as well as Rich (Dubee, Tigers pitching coach) want him throwing that slider a bit harder —making it a true slider.
“As we’ve seen with Fulmer (Michael, Tigers rookie starter), you still need an arsenal. And Joe’s still working on that slider and change.”
It isn’t yet clear if Jimenez might join the Tigers later in the season if and when those secondary pitches mature. Nor is it a certainty he will be summoned in September when roster limits expand and players destined soon for Detroit tend to get important introductory work.
That all depends on how the next two months unfurl. Health. Innings and pitch-counts. Development the Tigers believe, at this time, is best confined to the Tigers farm.
Position: Right-handed pitcher
Born: Jan. 17, 1995 (San Juan, Puerto Rico)
Acquired: Signed as a free agent in June 2013
Statistics: In 27 games (27.1 innings) with Lakeland and Erie this season, Jimenez is 3-0 with 46 strikeouts, seven walks, 11 hits, .122 opponent batting average, and 15 saves in 15 opportunities.