Three years ago Eloy Jimenez was a raw talent the Cubs and their fans could only dream on. Just 16, the 6-foot-4 outfielder had a good starter set but plenty of room for improvement.
There's no dreaming anymore.
After two seasons of steady growth that also included some struggles, Jimenez busted through in a big way in 2016 to earn the MiLBY Award for Breakout Prospect of the Year.
Jason McLeod, the Cubs' VP of player development and amateur scouting, got his first look at Jimenez in the winter of 2013 at a workout in the Dominican Republic. Reports were that the right-handed slugger was the cream of that year's international crop, and the Cubs, coming off the third of what would be five straight fifth-place finishes in the NL Central, owned the second-biggest international pool and were doing their due diligence.
"Just the frame," McLeod said of his initial impression of Jimenez. "You could see it already, how tall he was, the length to his arms. He just had one of those big, physical body types, but there was also a lot of strength in the swing. And beyond the body, he had a good idea at the plate. He wasn't just trying to lift balls out and hit bombs to left field over and over. There was a presence to the approach that you don't see from kids that age."
Fans' Choice: Mitch Keller, West Virginia, Bradenton
Due to injuries, Mitch Keller's first full season in 2015 was anything but, as he was limited to only 19 2/3 innings at Rookie-level Bristol. The 20-year-old right-hander was not only healthy on the mound in 2016 but absolutely stellar with a 2.35 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 138 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 130 1/3 innings in the South Atlantic and Florida State Leagues. His 7.3 K/BB ratio ranked fourth among all full-season Minor League hurlers. As a result, the 2014 second-rounder went from No. 14 in MLB.com's prospect ranking of Pirates prospects to No. 5 and jumped into the top 100 overall at No. 72. Voting results »
As the signing period closed in, the Cubs had to decide the extent to which that year's international class would be part of their rebuilding efforts. They decided to go all in and had Jimenez and Venezuelan shortstop Gleyber Torres -- the No. 1 and 3 prospects in MLB.com's 2013 international rankings -- in their sights.
"A lot of that goes to our international staff," he said. "They do the background, the legwork, talking to the family. Those of us who go down to crosscheck are evaluating the tools, the upside and try to make a decision to be aggressive. Between him and Gleyber, we had to think what [signing both guys] would mean for our bonus pool. Between what we saw and what the guys in the Dominican were telling us, it was apparent that we needed to be aggressive and make everything line up."
The Cubs made three separate trades with the Dodgers, Orioles and Astros on July 2 to acquire more pool money in anticipation of the signings to come. (The trade with Baltimore has become particularly notable for netting Chicago 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and reliever Pedro Strop.) With all three deals, the Cubs bumped their pool up from $4,557,200 to $5,520,200.
Torres was signed first for $1.7 million. A month later, Jimenez made things official, reportedly turning down a higher offer from another club to sign with the Cubs for $2.8 million. Chicago also added fellow top-30 international prospects Erling Moreno, Wladimir Galindo and Jen-Ho Tseng and blew past its pool, incurring a 100 percent tax on the overage and capping their potential individual bonuses for 2014-15 at $250,000 -- but Jimenez was the crown jewel.
He didn't perform like it during his first season, however. The Cubs challenged the 17-year-old with a move stateside in the Arizona League and saw him take his lumps with a .227/.268/.367 line and 13 extra-base hits in 42 games. With an 80 wRC+, he was considered to have performed 20 percent below league average.
The 2015 season saw some gains as the Cubs chose to keep Jimenez at a short-season circuit, the Northwest League, for his second season. He posted a .284/.328/.418 with seven homers, 10 doubles and 33 RBIs in 57 games for Eugene, earning a spot on the mid-season All-Star team. His wRC+ jumped to 113 while his strikeout rate dropped slightly from 19.5 percent to 17.2, a welcome development for a slugger his size.
Still, the corner outfielder who was once seen as the best international prospects in the game had fallen to No. 10 in MLB.com's ranking of Cubs prospects entering the 2016 season. The Cubs remained high on the player and believed there were a number of reasons why he was seen as being behind his organizational peers.
"Some of it is youth," McLeod said. "Coming out of the Northwest League, I don't think anyone would say those were monster numbers. But on the other hand, not to pat on ourselves on the back, but you have to look at the other guys in our system he was behind. Willson Contreras was coming off a great year. Dylan Cease was lighting up radar guns with triple digits. That gets people excited. Torres, all the other guys, there was just so much there that he could get lost in the shuffle while he was developing."
In fact, McLeod went so far as to tell ESPN.com in a March Q&A that Jimenez "might be one of those guys that really bursts onto the prospect scene this year. People already know about him because of the bonus he got and his short season, but the at-bats are so much more mature then you would expect from a 19-year-old."
It didn't take Jimenez long to prove McLeod right. After opening with modest numbers (.284/.326/.420, one homer over 20 games) in Class A South Bend in April, the lanky slugger broke out big time in May with a .364/.407/.627 line over 28 games. His seven homers that month matched his total from the entire 2015 campaign. Four of those long balls came over a six-game stretch between May 16-22, earning him his first career Player of the Week honors.
From May through July, Jimenez proved to be one of the Minors' best sluggers at any level with a .358/.394/.581 line with 11 homers, one triple, 27 doubles and 58 RBIs in 73 games for South Bend. Those around him knew he was becoming a juggernaut.
"From when I had him as a manager in the Arizona League in 2014 to what he's done this year, he's a totally different player," said South Bend skipper Jimmy Gonzalez. "He could make all the plays. He controlled his body. He had an approach. He matured mentally. He understood how they attacked him. He allowed himself to study and make adjustments. Yes, it's low-A ball here, but not many 23-year-olds did what he was able to do.
"Big guys like him, you normally see a lot of strikeouts," Gonzalez said. "Now, he had his fair share of strikeouts, but he struck out less than you'd expect. He knew he had power, but he still had a good two-strike approach. The way he was able to take the ball to right field when they pitched him like that, you don't see a lot of that at this level, and he maintained it all year. Then because of his power, sometimes those hits out to right would go for doubles or even homers. Once he had the approach down, everything took care of itself."
The accolades continued to roll in. First came a trip to the Midwest League All-Star Game on June 22, where Jimenez called his ninth-inning, game-tying, three-run homer and took MVP honors for his efforts. The next month, he headed to San Diego to participate in the All-Star Futures Game as one of only two players from the Class A level. Despite his lack of experience, he made a run for another MVP award by again going deep on the big stage and making a spectacular grab over the wall in foul territory.
Jimenez finished the regular season with a .329/.369/.532 line, 14 homers, three triples, 40 doubles, 81 RBIs and eight steals in his 112 games -- numbers that, not surprisingly, were good enough to get him Midwest League MVP honors at season's end. Once South Bend was bounced from the playoffs, Jimenez even got a bump to Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach in time to help the Pelicans capture the Mills Cup. (He went 2-for-5 with an RBI from the cleanup spot in the club's 5-3, series-clinching Game 4 of the Finals.) When the Minor League season concluded, the Cubs made the easy decision of naming Jimenez their Minor League Player of the Year.
His stats weren't the only numbers that improved. Jimenez jumped to No. 2 in the Cubs system, trailing only 2015 first-rounder Ian Happ, and sits No. 23 overall, making him the highest-ranked player to have began the season outside the top 100.
And the story's not quite over for 2016, either.
The Cubs continued to challenge Jimenez with a trip to the Arizona Fall League. Though he hasn't quite matched his South Bend numbers against the more advanced arms of the AFL, he has continued to open plenty of eyes with two of the hardest-hit balls in the Fall League -- one of which went screaming off his bat at 119 mph.
There's also the possibility of the Dominican League. Jimenez went first overall in this year's draft to Gigantes del Cibao, and McLeod didn't rule out his involvement this winter, saying the organization would be in a "read and react" mode while noting that Contreras used a 2014 trip to the Venezuelan Winter League to catapult him toward a breakout season in 2015.
The Cubs would like to see Jimenez pick up a few more walks after taking the free pass in only 5.4 percent of his plate appearances in 2016. They'd also like to see his defense improve to the point where he's a right fielder full time, rather than splitting his time between right and left.
But one thing is for certain. Jimenez is no longer a prospect to dream on. He's broken out, and it's enough to give him some big dreams of his own.
"After his Futures Game experience, I talked to him and he was saying, 'Man, when I was coming into the game and walking to the outfield, I looked up and saw the third deck and that was amazing,'" McLeod said. "I think he had that same experience with the Minor League award we gave him in our last series against St. Louis. Just looking up and seeing what it's all about. When it's game time, he does a good job of quieting all that noise. But afterward, I think he's realizing, 'Wow, I am one of the best young players in the game.'"
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.