Detroit Tigers C Enrique Jimenez, a ‘very proud’ feeling & more international deals

Detroit Free Press

Enrique Jimenez watched a lot of baseball growing up.

He primarily studied three players: Yadier Molina, Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera. Two elite catchers; one Venezuelan legend. About 10 years ago, Jimenez asked his father to take him to the local baseball field in Venezuela. That’s when he first picked up a ball and tried to emulate Molina, his favorite player, and from then on, his passion for the game shined.

Jimenez, now 17, recently became a member of the Detroit Tigers. The switch-hitting catcher signed a professional contract Sunday, the first day of the international signing period, and received a $1.25 million signing bonus. In 2023, Jimenez will play in the Dominican Summer League.

“I feel very proud of what I have been doing from the beginning,” Jimenez said from his home in Barcelona, Venezuela, speaking through an interpreter. “I’m very committed to the Tigers, and I’m going to work very hard.”

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The Tigers discovered Jimenez in 2019.

Area scout Raul Leiva — a former switch-hitting catcher from Venezuela who signed with the Tigers in 2007 — has received high marks from his superiors for evaluating talent, especially catchers.

Leiva, now 33, played four seasons in the lower minor leagues, from 2007-10, alongside Avisaíl García, Hernán Pérez, Bruce Rondón, Eugenio Suárez, Dixon Machado and Steven Moya.

“He’s very detailed in knowing what he likes,” Tom Moore, the Tigers’ director of international operations, said. “When he first reported on him, that certainly struck the attention of our guys, and then we were able to see him in some showcases, and what he reported on was evident.”

Based on the Tigers’ evaluations, Jimenez displayed a sharp makeup off the field and natural baseball instincts on the field. His game-calling proved to be off the charts, meaning he knows how to handle a pitching staff, and his footwork graded as an above-average skill.

On offense, Jimenez showcased athleticism and an ability to put the ball in play.

He hasn’t tapped into his power yet, which primarily comes from the right side of the plate, but the Tigers watched him slug several home runs in an MLB-caliber stadium, so there should be raw power to unleash as his body matures. From the left side, though, he views himself as a better contact hitter.

“We always have something to improve,” Jimenez said. “There are five tools, so there are some things that maybe you have to improve to get better. I’m going to try to improve my body (listed at 5-foot-10, 165 pounds). I have a good body, but I want to have a better body.”

Leiva, because of his background as a player within the organization, provided an under-the-radar advantage for the Tigers in their pursuit of Jimenez, who ranked as the No. 32 international prospect in the 2023 class, according to MLB Pipeline.

Later in the process, director of Latin American operations Miguel Garcia — the same scout who helped the Florida Marlins sign Cabrera in 1999 — locked in the agreement. Cabrera, who turns 40 in April, is entering the final year of his contract in the 2023 season.

“In the future, maybe I’m going to be like Miguel Cabrera,” Jimenez said. “I just want to get to the United States as fast as I can because I want to be a part of the Tigers. I know the Tigers have a lot of fans, so I really want to give the fans the happiness that they want.”

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Along with Leiva’s influence, the Tigers benefitted from Jimenez’s relationship with switch-hitting catcher Eliezer Alfonzo Jr., the son of former six-year MLB catcher Eliezer Alfonzo.

The Alfonzo and Jimenez families live in the same neighborhood, so the youngsters have been friends since 2014. (He also knows former Tigers outfielder Victor Reyes, as well as prospects Samuel Gil, Carlos Mendoza and Abel Bastidas, among others.)

Alfonzo Jr. signed with the Tigers in 2016.

He hit .287 with eight homers, 28 walks and 35 strikeouts in 98 games during the 2021 season — advancing to High-A West Michigan — before a back injury cost him almost the entire the 2022 season. Despite the setback, he is a catcher the Tigers believe will play in the major leagues.

“For me, he is like a brother,” Jimenez said. “He is always with me. There isn’t anyone better to help me get better and share knowledge. He’s a really good person, and I’m always getting good things from him to help me reach my goals.”

For now, Jimenez is leaning on his close friend to teach him about adjusting to the minor leagues. A successful assignment in the Dominican Summer League should send him to the Florida Complex League in 2024. After that, he would need to pass through four more affiliates to get to the highest level.

He has a long way to go.

“I’m going to try to be better every day,” Jimenez said.

What Tom Moore thinks

On Dominican Republic outfielder Cristian Perez ($1.1 million bonus): “He’s one of the younger players in the class. He’s going to play almost the entire DSL at 16 years old. That is certainly an advantage to him. Physically, he is advanced for that age. He actually grew up on a farm, so if you want to use the term country-strong, I guess it’s pretty appropriate for him. But very good bat speed, really good raw power. He’s a kid that sometimes will get a little anxious at the plate and try to do too much, but he also has the ability to make adjustments. That really intrigued us watching him in games. The bat speed is there. The power is there. He’s got the ability to play center field. Very athletic. He’s a plus runner. Another premium position player.”

On Venezuelan outfielder Anibal Salas ($1 million bonus): “Really good raw tool set. He’s a plus-plus runner. I know Miguel Garcia made this reference, and I think it’s really good: Watching him run a 60 (yard dash) at you, it puts a little fear in you because it sounds like it’s a runaway train coming down the track. He’s a switch-hitter. I would say the left-handed side is a little more advanced. Just really good top hand use, whips the bat through the zone and easy raw power. The ball jumps off his bat. He has athleticism in the outfield, but I would say he’s going to end up playing a corner (position). Plus arm. He was up to 100 (mph) on our radar gun from the outfield, so he has real arm strength. That’s another guy with a lot of tools that we’re excited to see how they translate once he puts a Tiger uniform on and gets in the DSL.”

On Venezuelan shortstop Maikol Orozco ($900,000 bonus): “Another athlete. The thing we liked about him, he’s a gamer. His approach at the plate, he likes to stay to the middle of the field. He’s got really good bat speed, and we think he’s going to develop power down the line. He’s a plus runner. As an amateur, we saw him in different positions, but we see him as a shortstop, for sure, to start off with, and then we’ll see where his development goes from there. He has some strength, and if that body continues to fill out, he might grow off the position. But right now, I think it’s best for his development to see how he can continue to progress in a premium position.”

Upgrades coming

The Tigers are in the process of expanding their international scouting department, an example of Scott Harris’ work behind the scenes. The organization, led by a new president of baseball operations, has already filled two new positions: a full-time analyst dedicated to international scouting and another scout.

Next, the Tigers will hire video and data employees.

“We’re in that process,” Moore said, “so we’ve gotten a lot of support in that way, just to provide the resources we need to compete in the international environment.”

Since trading Willy Adames in 2014, the Tigers have developed one player who has produced positive WAR in the majors — left-handed reliever Gregory Soto (1.1 fWAR) — from the international market.

Scouting, specifically international scouting, was supposed to be former general manager Al Avila’s specialty, but the Tigers failed to keep up with other teams. Earlier this month, Harris traded Soto to the Philadelphia Phillies for position players Matt Vierling, Nick Maton and Donny Sands.

Rob Metzler chimes in

Another example of Harris’ work stems from new assistant general manager Rob Metzler. He previously served as the senior director of amateur scouting with the Tampa Bay Rays. For the Tigers, Metzler will oversee the domestic and international scouting departments.

“We have had a process in place for a long time,” Moore said.

That process is expected to undergo tweaks moving forward, a product of Metzler’s influence, previous experience and fresh perspective. Moore stressed the Tigers need to continue having “healthy conversations” in search of an overall improvement on the international market.

“I want to thank Tom Moore, Miguel Garcia and their entire team on the work they put in scouting these players and adding them to our organization,” Metzler said in a statement. “It’s always an exciting time for these young men and their families as they take the first step in realizing their dream of playing professional baseball. I’m looking forward to seeing their growth, not just on the field, but off the field as well.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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