MESA, Ariz. – Could there be a Triple Crown/MVP/Cooperstown-level talent roaming around the back fields of the Sloan Park complex? Hey, who doesn't love a good story on St. Patrick's Day? But at the very least, Eloy Jimenez made a huge impression on manager Joe Maddon before the Cubs assigned their top prospect to minor-league camp.
"What he showed to me is a tremendous understanding of his swing as a 20-year-old," Maddon said. "Watch him take batting practice. His left-field foul line is pretty much left-center. He doesn't really hook the baseball. He stays inside the ball as well as the most seasoned (hitter).
"(It's the way) Edgar Martinez did (it). It's kind of like that approach or Miguel Cabrera. I'm not saying he's those guys yet. I'm just saying that's his approach. It's really sophisticated for a 20-year-old."
Let's not write the Hall of Fame induction speech yet. Jimenez spent last season at Class-A South Bend. Spring training is the time and place for dreaming about young players. The Cubs obviously have a vested interest in talking up their kids down on the farm. And forget it when Maddon — who once compared Jorge Soler to Vladimir Guerrero "with plate discipline" — starts rolling.
But at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds and with that smooth right-handed swing, Jimenez certainly looks the part. Baseball America, ESPN, MLB.com and FanGraphs all have him ranked as a top-15 prospect in the industry. The Cubs are already seeing a return on the $2.8 million investment they made in the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2013.
"He's going to hit," Maddon said. "The velocity, ball off the bat, is incredible. He'll look awful on one pitch and then come back and hit a screaming line drive. He'll make quick adjustments. Again, really sophisticated or beyond his years at 20.
"I don't know when he's going to show up, but you know he's going to show up at some point. He's not many, many years out. But of course he needs another solid year or so — year-and-a-half at least, maybe two in the minor leagues — before you really want to strongly consider that.
"The outfield defense, running routes, base-running, things of that nature, I definitely want to see him improve on also, and that was part of the conversation."
It's not just about Jimenez. For Maddon, the larger story is the next generation of Cubs (or the growing stack of trade chips for Theo Epstein's front office).
In cutting the roster to 43 on Friday, the Cubs also optioned catcher Victor Caratini, outfielder Jacob Hannemann and pitchers Pierce Johnson and Felix Pena to Triple-A Iowa. Joining Jimenez in minor-league camp will be infielder Chesny Young, a .300 hitter at five different levels already, and outfielder Mark Zagunis, a player Maddon compared to Kevin Millar in terms of hitting style and body type (not off-the-wall personality).
"We just sent out seven guys, one guy's already played in the big leagues, and the other six are going to," Maddon said. "That doesn't happen all the time when you have these meetings. You say: ‘Eh, you know, with this or with that…' No, Pena played already (in the majors). The other six guys will. I feel very confident about that. I don't know exactly when, but they will."