By: Will Burchfield
Minnesota Twins centerfielder Eddie Rosario used one word to describe Joe Jimenez, the 22-year-old reliever with an electric arm: tranquilo.
Rosario got to know Jimenez last month at the World Baseball Classic where they both played for Team Puerto Rico. He came away with the impression of a good person, a hard worker and a fearless pitcher.
“He pitched in the big moment and wasn’t scared,” Rosario said. “No matter what, he did his job and did it good.”
Twins pitcher Hector Santiago, also a member of the Puerto Rican Team, recalled how Jimenez was yearning for a chance to face Miguel Cabrera of Team Venezuela.
“That shows something about him that he’s not afraid to go against the best hitter in the game,” Santiago said. “He’s gonna be a bulldog. As long as he goes out there and has confidence in his stuff he’s going to succeed.”
Success has been the theme of Jimenez’s career since the Tigers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2013. From the Gulf Coast League to Triple-A the big righty has been nothing but dominant, mowing down hitters and racking up strikeouts. His rising star is most obviously buoyed by his ability, manifested in a fastball that touches triple digits and a changeup that confounds.
“That fastball,” Rosario said, “it’s a big one. And he’s got good command.”
But, by most accounts, his success is also a product of his composure. On the mound, Jimenez seems like a paradox. He hurls heat, but projects a sense of cool; throws hard, but breathes easy. This calm demeanor served him well at the WBC, an experience that the veteran Santiago compared to “pitching in the playoffs or the World Series.”
No matter the situation, Jimenez is present and level-headed.
“That’s what I’m always trying to do always because you can’t get anxious out there,” he said. “The team needs you to get outs and win.”
The Tigers called up Jimenez from Triple-A Toledo on Monday for that exact reason. Their bullpen is a problem and Jimenez could be a solution. When GM Al Avila and manager Brad Ausmus asked their minor-league staff to recommend a big-league-ready reliever, the response was unanimous: Jimenez.
“Going to the WBC probably took away his chance of making the team out of spring training,” said Santiago, “but look: we’re 10 days into the season and he’s already here. So they want him to be up here and I’m looking for a lot of good things from him. His stuff is incredible, man.”
Through three days in the bigs, Jimenez has yet to make his debut. The Tigers are committed to easing him into action and Ausmus has issued warnings on saddling him with expectations.
“To expect this guy to be Mariano Rivera would be unfair to the kid, and we certainly wouldn’t put him in that position to try and be Mariano Rivera,” Ausmus said.
So far, the manager has held firm. With the Tigers protecting late-game leads each of the last three games, Ausmus has called on a litany of relievers, but not Jimenez. Even on Wednesday, with both Francisco Rodriguez and Justin Wilson unavailable, Ausmus never considered bringing Jimenez into the game.
“I’m not going to force him into a game or a situation that I don’t want him to start out pitching,” Ausmus said.
Still, it’s only a matter of time. Either the proper situation will arise or the Tigers will be backed into a corner and have no other choice. Santiago, for his part, expected Jimenez to come running out of the bullpen on Tuesday.
“I thought he’d be thrown in for the eighth inning. I saw them up 2-0 and I thought for sure this would be his chance to go out there. A future eighth inning guy or closer, get him out there, put him in some situations,” Santiago said. “I know that first one you want it to be low leverage, either up by a lot or down by a lot, but I think throwing him in that fire right out of the gate can help him grow quicker.”
Jimenez would obviously like to pitch as soon as possible, but maintains he’s simply waiting for his moment.
“I’m gonna be ready whatever inning that the manager needs me,” he said. “I’m not going to concentrate on one inning. If he wants me to pitch whenever, I will be ready.”
It’s an outlook in keeping with his team-first mentality. Jimenez has transcendent ability and sky-high potential, but keeps his feet on the ground.
“He doesn’t think he’s better than anybody in the clubhouse. The person next to him is his friend, his brother,” said Santiago. “A very humble kid, man, just happy to be able to play baseball.”
Of course, that mindset changes when he toes the rubber.
“When he’s on the mound he’s the best pitcher out there, the best player out there and nobody can beat him. That’s what kind of makes him a bulldog. He’s going to attack you, he’s going to throw his fastball up in the zone, he’s going to go right after you. And he’s got a lot of stuff in that arm.”
That arm is still developing. So is some of the stuff in it. His slider, for example, still has a long way to go in becoming a reliable third pitch. The Tigers are hoping Justin Verlander can help Jimenez with that process. Michael Fulmer can lend some advice, too.
Then again, Santiago isn’t so sure Jimenez needs a third pitch.
“Being a reliever helps because sometimes you can get away with just one pitch and a secondary pitch to show. But I think if he can continue to get better with that slider and make the changeup come into play, if he can have a three-pitch combo as a reliever or an 8th inning guy…wow,” said Santiago, marveling at the very thought.
If it’s a wonder, it’s not an improbability. One thing that immediately stands out about Jimenez, aside from that 6’3, 220-pound frame, is his eagerness to learn. He said he soaked up advice wherever he could find it at the WBC, something that Santiago confirmed.
“He’s always looking for something, he’s talking to guys, trying to get some information. He’s not afraid to go and ask around,” said Santiago.
Not afraid. It’s something that continually pops up with Jimenez. When Santiago played with Jimenez in Puerto Rico winter ball in 2013, Jimenez, then 18 years old, was already touching 97 mph on the radar gun and attacking hitters with intent.
“He went after guys, he wasn’t scared of anybody. Obviously, you don’t have to be when you’re throwing 97, 98,” Santiago said.
So when Santiago texted Jimenez upon his call-up, encouraging him to be aggressive, to “go right after guys,” he quickly realized his mistake.
“He’s had that mentality since he was 18,” said Santiago.
It was at that age that Jimenez switched from being a starter to a reliever, and it was this role change that altered his approach on the mound.
“First time as a reliever it changed my mindset,” he said, “because obviously you have to get outs.”
The following season his velocity jumped from the lower 90s to the upper 90s. Aggression came naturally after that.
Both Rosario and Santiago said they were thrilled when they learned Jimenez was being called up. So were the rest of his teammates from the WBC.
“We still have our group chat and everybody congratulated him,” Santiago said.
Then Santiago shot him a personal text.
I was like, ‘Hey man, same game, just a bigger paycheck.’ That’s honestly what it is. You go out there, you’re gonna face good hitters, and if you execute your pitch you’re gonna get them out. It doesn’t matter who’s up there,” he said.
If Jimenez had his choice, it’d be the best the opposition has to offer.