The obsession with what’s next means Eloy Jimenez will be one of the most talked-about players in Cubs camp this spring.
Even though Jimenez can’t legally buy a beer in Wrigleyville yet and still hasn’t played above the A-ball level. Even as the Cubs begin preparations to defend their first World Series title since 1908.
Even in a clubhouse filled with the National League’s reigning MVP (Kris Bryant), a World Series MVP (Ben Zobrist) and a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta). Even that doesn’t include the pitchers who’ve already earned multiple championship rings (Jon Lester and John Lackey) or notched the final out in a World Series (Koji Uehara, Wade Davis and Mike Montgomery).
Not to mention the face of the franchise (Anthony Rizzo), the Gold Glove outfielder with the biggest contract in franchise history (Jason Heyward) and the exciting 24-and-under players who’ve given this team so much energy and swagger (Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras).
But in Arizona, the buzz will keep building around Jimenez, a consensus elite prospect on the ESPN (No. 12) and MLB.com (No. 14) lists of the industry’s best and brightest. Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus identified Jimenez as the organization’s top prospect, projecting his Wrigley Field ETA at 2019. Cub officials see Jimenez as part of that next wave (assuming he isn’t used as a trade chip in a blockbuster deal for pitching this summer or next winter).
“The whole package,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development. “When you walk into the ballpark, you notice him right away. Just the sheer size – he’s massive. But he’s got this million-watt smile.”
The Cubs made Jimenez ($2.8 million) and Gleyber Torres ($1.7 million) the centerpieces to their international class in the summer of 2013, mining for talent in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and building for the future as the big-league club staggered toward a 96-loss, last-place finish.
Torres – who would have been blocked by All-Star shortstop Addison Russell – is the middle infielder with maybe more polish and a higher floor and an Arizona Fall League MVP award now on his resume. Jimenez – a corner outfielder with perhaps a higher ceiling – became an AFL Fall Star after hitting .329 with 14 homers, 81 RBI and a .901 OPS during his age-19 season with the South Bend Cubs.
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After the New York Yankees chose Torres to be their headliner in the Aroldis Chapman trade last summer, McLeod said watching Jimenez and that 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame and smooth right-handed swing at Class-A South Bend reminded him a little bit of seeing Bryant during his freshman season at the University of San Diego.
“He’s an advanced hitter, especially for a young Latin hitter,” McLeod said. “He is someone who doesn’t swing and miss much for (his age). Just tremendous strength to drive balls to the middle of the field, probably makes a little too much contact early in counts. I think that’s where we are with him and his development path right now, just understanding what pitchers are trying to do to him. (It’s) understanding that he can hit balls 420 feet to right field as well as hitting them 480 to left field.”
Jimenez already went viral during the All-Star Futures Game last summer in San Diego, where he made a leaping catch in the right-field corner (nearly falling over the railing) and blasted a three-run homer off the Western Metal Supply Co. building.
“I’ve seen a lot of games in Petco Park over the years,” said McLeod, who started his career as an intern with the Padres and spent two seasons as their assistant general manager before moving to Chicago. “You don’t see many major-leaguers hit ‘em up on the warehouse like he did as a 19-year-old last year.
“Sky’s the limit. I think he's someone who can sit in the middle of a lineup and wreak a lot of havoc on some pitching across the major leagues. It’s just a matter of him maturing as a hitter and understanding what pitchers are going to try to do to him.”