As Joe Jimenez works back to form, his future role with Tigers remains unclear

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Hard to believe that after four seasons the jury could still be out on Tigers’ reliever Joe Jimenez. But it is.

Which is why whatever work he gets in this last week will be significant.

Through 21 games this season, Tigers pitcher Joe Jimenez owns an ERA of 9.00.

“This organization has decisions to make on what’s going to happen next year,” Ron Gardenhire said Saturday about two hours before he announced his retirement. “He’s a big part of it, whether he’s the closer or whatever. He’s a power arm, a big, strong arm. We know he can do it.

“He just went through a rough stretch, but he’s starting to come out of it.”

Jimenez on Friday night pitched his fifth scoreless inning in his last six outings. He’s allowed just two hits with five strikeouts in those outings, working in the middle innings. The sixth outing, though, was a mess. He allowed a pair of home runs and three runs in two-thirds of an inning against the Cardinals.

It’s unlikely he will regain the closer role this year, but he could put himself in a position to win it back next spring if he finishes strong.

“We go with our sheets and wherever he fits best is where we are going to use him,” Gardenhire said. “As far as saying he’s going to close games, I don’t know about that.”

It’s too simplistic to blame Jimenez’s ups and downs on his fastball velocity, but you can’t ignore it, either. When he debuted in 2015, his fastball averaged 96 mph and could touch 98. But that velocity has decreased incrementally the last three years:

► 2017: 95.6 mph

► 2018: 96 mph

► 2019: 95.5 mph

► 2020: 94 mph

Last season, opponents hit .220 against the fastball with a 29% swing-and-miss rate. This year, opponents are hitting the fastball at a .308 clip and missing it far less (17%).

His second pitch, the slider, has been mostly good (.200 opponent average), but when he misses it gets hit hard — of the five hits off it, three have been home runs. And his third pitch, an 88-mph change-up, has been rendered virtually unusable because of the decreased fastball velocity.

So, yeah, the jury is still out. The good news for the Tigers, they have another year to figure it out if they want. Jimenez isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2021.

“If he has a couple more outings like the last two, I’m not afraid to put him in anywhere,” Gardenhire said.  “He’s been a closer. He knows what it takes to do that. He’s just gone through his struggles like a lot of other guys.

“But he’s throwing the ball better now.”

Around the horn

The Tigers optioned infielder Sergio Alcantara back to the alternative training site after the game Sunday. The Tigers will announce a corresponding move before the game Tuesday in Minnesota. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop is eligible to come off the injured list on Wednesday.

Third baseman Isaac Paredes, after grinding through a 2-for-36 skid, will take a seven-game hitting streak into the game Tuesday. He is 7 for 21 in that stretch with three doubles.

On deck: Minnesota Twins

Series: Two-game series at Target Field, Minneapolis

First pitch: Both games, 7:40 p.m.

TV/radio: Both games, Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM

Probables: Tuesday — LHP Tarik Skubal (1-3, 6.17) vs. TBA; Wednesday — RHP Casey Mize (0-2, 6.08) vs. RHP Kenta Maeda (5-1, 2.52).

Scouting report

Skubal, Tigers: He’s coming off a quality start against the Royals (two earned runs, eight strikeouts, no walks in six innings). It was his second quality start in his last three outings. This will be his third start against the Twins; he’s allowed three runs with eight strikeouts in 11 innings in the first two.

TBA, Twins: The Twins have not announced their starter.

Twitter: @cmccosky