Joe Jimenez has a plan to return as Detroit Tigers' closer: 'Whatever they want me to do'

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Joe Jimenez doesn't fully understand.

His struggles for the Detroit Tigers in 2020 were products of a dip in fastball velocity, getting hit hard when he lost control of his slider and rarely using his changeup. Then, suddenly, everything improved.

"Something clicked," said the 26-year-old Thursday, the second day of pitcher-catcher workouts in spring training. "I don't know what it was. But I felt good in the last few outings. Just trying to bring that to this year."

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Detroit Tigers pitcher Joe Jimenez stretches at spring training Feb. 18, 2021, in Lakeland, Florida.

Overall, the results last year were ugly: a 7.15 ERA, seven homers allowed, five hit-by-pitches and 18 earned runs in 22⅔ innings, with a 50% hard-hit rate and a 10.3% barrel rate against him. Hitters had an average 92.1 mph exit velocity off the bat.

This is not new.

[ Joe Jimenez was an All-Star. Where it went wrong and how he can fix it ]

Jimenez has faced difficulties throughout his four-year career; the inconsistencies are amassing. Last year, former manager Ron Gardenhire had trouble finding any role for him.

"I can say that my slider wasn't there," Jimenez said. "Coming from the quarantine ... it was difficult to get ready in just a small period of time. At the end of the year, I finally had it. It's just a shame that we didn't have a longer season so I could prove it was there."

His final seven appearances were stellar: no runs allowed, five hits, no walks and seven strikeouts in 7⅔ innings. Those outings put him back into consideration for the closer role entering 2021.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Joe Jimenez delivers the ball at spring training Feb. 18, 2021, in Lakeland, Florida.

"You can't judge somebody from a few games," Jimenez said. "It's crazy how everyone thinks, 'OK, he had 10 games that he didn't do that well, so we got to judge him.' It's just crazy how people say it like that. You can't tell how the year is going to go in those 10 games."

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To an extent, Jimenez is right, considering both his failures and successes in 2020.

But the Tigers need stability from their closer, and that's something Jimenez couldn't provide. Sure, it isn't fair to make long-term judgments from nine performances in which he gave up at least one run, especially with a small sample in the shortened season.

But it was fair to yank Jimenez from the closer role. Through a 14-game span from Aug. 2 to Sept. 10, he had a 13.91 ERA and allowed 17 earned runs in 11 innings. The Tigers turned to 25-year-old Bryan Garcia to replace him.

Detroit Tigers right-handed pitcher Joe Jimenez's 2020 MLB percentile rankings from Statcast.

"It's finding what he does well and continuing to work toward getting him back into that adrenaline-filled, leverage role that he's been used to," Tigers manager AJ Hinch said Thursday. "But he has to pitch well to do that. There's a great responsibility that comes with that when we hand you the ball with the lead, that you can go out and execute.

"For him, execution has been a huge issue."

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Through two days of spring training, Hinch has learned three things about Jimenez, who tossed his first in-camp bullpen Thursday.

First, he is driven.

Second, he cares about his job.

Third, he has a chip on his shoulder.

"I'm going to do whatever they want me to do," Jimenez said, adding he is willing to pitch multiple innings. "Whoever is going to be the guy, it's like you have to prepare the same way as everybody else. I'm just going to be the guy who's going to go out there and do my job. Doesn't matter what situation, I'll go in."

Schreiber claimed by Red Sox

For the fifth time this winter, a player from the Tigers has been claimed off waivers. Most recently, right-handed reliever John Schreiber — designated for assignment last Friday to make room for outfielder Nomar Mazara — was picked up Thursday by the Boston Red Sox.

Turning 27 in early March, Schreiber has pitched 28⅔ innings in his MLB career, spanning parts of the last two seasons. He owns a 6.28 ERA, 1.500 WHIP, 33 strikeouts and eight walks.

The five: Schreiber, outfielder Travis Demeritte (Atlanta Braves), right-hander Anthony Castro (Toronto Blue Jays), outfielder Troy Stokes Jr. (Pittsburgh Pirates) and infielder Sergio Alcantara (Chicago Cubs).

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.