Relief prospect Jimenez ‘long shot’ to open with Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — His manager is realistic.

Joe Jimenez almost certainly will start the 2017 season at Triple A Toledo.

“To be truthful, he’s an extreme long shot,” Brad Ausmus said Tuesday of Jimenez, the 22-year-old, right-handed reliever and his chances to make the Tigers’ 25-man Opening Day corps.

Jimenez pitched in Monday’s game against the Braves at Publix Field and showed again why for a year and more he has been moving closer to Comerica Park and to becoming a back-end bullpen weapon.

He allowed one run on a walk and triple, which would have been caught had a blinding sun not handcuffed Tigers outfielder Alex Presley. Then, after hitting a batter, Jimenez struck out the next three Braves hitters on fastballs of 95-97 mph, spiced by a slider and occasional change-up.

“His fastball plays right now,” Ausmus said, meaning Jimenez has enough of a heater to get by in the big leagues.

But it’s the secondary pitches that “he’s working on and honing right now.” Jimenez’s still-juvenile slider and change-up explained why he never got a call-up last September when rosters were unrestricted.

Jimenez pitched at three different minor-league levels in 2016, beginning at Single A Lakeland, before moving to Double A Erie, and then to Toledo.

His combined numbers: 55 games, 1.51 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, .144 opposing batting average, with 78 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings, and only 16 unintentional walks.

“Getting better,” Jimenez said Tuesday as the Tigers boarded a bus bound for Tampa and an afternoon game against the Yankees at Steinbrenner Field. “Threw a couple of (change-ups) yesterday. And the slider’s getting better.”

He is working there with a trio of Tigers pitching coaches: Rich Dubee (Detroit), Jeff Pico (Toledo), and Willie Blair (Erie).

“Trying to make my slider look like a fastball,” said Jimenez, acknowledging Ausmus’ critique that Jimenez “gets under” too many sliders, which tend to flatten and get whacked by savvy hitters. “But it’s getting better. Last year it wasn’t like that. And I didn’t throw my change-up much last year.”

Jimenez is 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, and came to the Tigers in somewhat unwieldy fashion in 2013, out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy.

He had established a heavy, and firm, price tag for any team hoping to draft and sign him — money demands big-league teams found unacceptable.

The Tigers swooped in following the draft and got him to sign a discounted deal. Immediately, he ranked as one of their top pitching prospects.

He is expected at Comerica Park in 2017. How soon depends upon that slider and/or change-up. And how the spring evolves, not only for Jimenez, but for a Tigers bullpen that annually needs help.