Watching Eloy Jimenez develop over the next few years figures to be a whole lot of fun.
Just when it looked like the Cubs’ farm system had run out of top tier, excellent hitting prospects, here comes a 6’4″ outfielder who slugged .532 in the Midwest League at the age of 19. His ISO is “only” .204, though, because he also hit .329.
This time last year, the main question on Jimenez was whether he could translate his system-leading raw power into game production. All the power in the world does not help if a player cannot make consistent contact, and while his 17.2% strikeout rate with Eugene was encouraging, some scouts still had questions. His hit tool was generally not graded as high as his power, and there were concerns that his swing would be exploited by more advanced pitching.
The swing may one day be victimized by advanced pitching, but I now suspect it will take better than ordinary pitching to do so on a regular basis. As for Jimenez’s ability to adjust to pitching, wait for a ball he can drive, and then destroy it – something to which Cubs Senior VP of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod pointed this weekend as Jimenez’s next big project – there were already some good signs last year. Particularly with respect to how hard Jimenez already hits the ball* (it was the first thing offered by McLeod when he was asked about Jimenez).
He finished a very successful season in South Bend with a line of .329/.369/.532 and 14 home runs. His walk rate was pedestrian (5.4%), and the strikeout rate was high enough give us pause (20.3%), even given his age and level. But Jimenez’s season Batting Average On Balls In Play (BABIP) of .391 is verging on ridiculous.
BABIP is exactly what it sounds like – the batting average for a player calculated only on those at bats in which a ball was hit in play. Home runs don’t count for the player, and strikeouts don’t count against him. Like a normal batting average, a number close to .400 is a high number. In the Major Leagues last year, for example, a former Cub farmhand named D.J. LeMahieu led the majors with a BABIP of .388. Only six players had a BABIP of .370 or higher, and the top figure for the Cubs was Dexter Fowler‘s .350 (good for 15th in the majors). A BABIP of .391 is noteworthy.
Generally speaking, there are three ways to get a high BABIP. One way is to be really lucky. If a player goes on a run in which a lot of balls just happen to slip through the infield or find the outfield grass, his BABIP will go up. These lucky streaks (and their opposites) tend to be relatively short-lived, and, in fact, we can use that our analytical advantage. If we see a player with a BABIP much higher (or lower) in a season than has been his norm over the past few seasons, and if we have no other reasonable explanation for the change, then we can safely theorize that he is in a flukey hot (or cold) stretch and that his numbers are likely to soon regress to something closer to his norm.
Good luck is less successful as an explanation when we are dealing with larger sample sizes, and Jimenez’s season of 464 PA is large enough call the lucky theory into question, at least as the exclusive explanation.
The second way to run up a BABIP is by being a good hitter who is also fast. A player who can convert a few infield hits into singles is going to have a higher BABIP than one who can’t beat out the ball. And, in fact, if we look at the leaders in Major League BABIP over the past three seasons, we see a fair few speed guys high on the list. Starling Marte, Dee Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Jose Altuve all appear in the top 20.
Jimenez is not a speed guy. His career total for steals is 14, and that took him 211 games. Maybe he could beat Anthony Rizzo in a foot race, but Jimenez is not a guy likely to make a living beating out throws from third.
That leaves the third way to post a high BABIP – consistently square up the ball and drive it into the outfield. Going back to the three year BABIP leaderboard, good hitters who consistently hit the ball very hard dominate the list. Don’t believe me? Compare the three-year BABIP leaderboard to the three-year Hard Hit % leaderboard. Many of the same names appear: Goldschmidt, Martinez, Freeman, Cabrera, Trout, Bryant, Votto. Hit the ball hard, not just when hitting home runs, but consistently, and you will often be rewarded with a high BABIP, as a rocket into the outfield is much harder for a defender to convert into an out than a pop-up on the infield.
One year of very high BABIP in Low-A does not necessarily mean we should expect Jimenez to join that list in the future. But I have no qualms saying that Jimenez has an offensive ceiling that rests somewhere among that group. I think he has the potential – if things go very well for him – to be one of the two or three best hitters on the Cubs one day. I’m not sure I can give a ceiling any higher than that, given who is already on the team.
Jimenez has a lot of work to do if that ceiling is going to become a reality. To begin with, there is still the matter of his strikeout rate. The good news on that front is that Jimenez actually saw his strikeout totals per month decline fairly dramatically as the season progressed. April (25) and May (26) were not very good, but we saw sizable improvements in June (16), July (16), and August (11). I suspect we’ll see a similar spike-and-decline trend this year at High-A Myrtle Beach.
The Cubs will not rush Jimenez, but I would not be surprised if they let his bat dictate the pace of advancement. As a teenager, he has now played across five professional levels (Rookie, Short-Season-A, Low-A, High-A (playoffs only), and Arizona Fall League), and everywhere that he has produced enough numbers to give us any kind of a sample, his peripheral stats have remained remarkably consistent. That often makes me suspect a player has yet to really be challenged. If that is the case with Jimenez, the Cubs may look to move him to Double-A on a slightly accelerated time table.
My bet is he won’t start there, though. Jimenez will most likely begin the year roaming left and right field for the two-time defending Carolina League Champion Myrtle Beach Pelicans, and he will likely lead the offense on a team that should have more than enough talent to go for a three-peat. If he is thriving in High-A after 60 games or so, I would not be surprised to see him moved to Double-A Tennessee.
As far as Chicago is concerned, I’m eyeing late 2018 as Jimenez’s earliest likely arrival. If the Cubs have a right field opening after 2018 due to Jason Heyward using his opt out, and if they are then unsuccessful in the Bryce Harper Sweepstakes (and I have no doubts the Cubs will join every other team in baseball in those sweepstakes), then Jimenez might be a nice in house option as Plan B. Otherwise, I am sure there will be at bats available somewhere in the outfield.
Given that Jimenez is the Cubs’ most desirable prospect right now, and given that the team has a post-2017 problem in the pitching department shaping up when a front-line starter, a mid-rotation starter, and two key bullpen arms all hit the open market (Arrieta, Lackey, Davis, and Strop) – it might seem that the most likely future for Jimenez is a trade. After all, he could easily have gone to the Yankees in the Chapman deal instead of Gleyber Torres, had those conversations going slightly differently.
And sending Jimenez out in a trade is certainly possible, but I suspect it is something the Cubs would much rather avoid. Jimenez has a much clearer path to playing regularly in Wrigley than either of Jeimer Candelario or Ian Happ (especially when you consider the timing), and I think he comes with a much higher offensive ceiling as well. I do not expect to see Jimenez included in a trade, not until the Cubs have a much better idea just what their post-2017 options are going to be, anyway.
That said, no prospect is entirely untouchable. Jimenez trade rumors will just be one more part of what makes the next few years so exciting.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.