Can we sit back and appreciate the greatness of international MLB players? Imagine being 16 years old, having to move to a new country, while also having the pressure to perform athletically at a high level in order to not only make your dreams come true but, oftentimes, to support your family as well.
Yet, not only do many players overcome these obstacles to be successful MLB players, but they often are also able to come up at a younger age than your typical prospect. In fact, the age that many international players reach the big leagues is the same as those drafted out of college; they’re constantly matched up against older competition. The amount of maturity and mental fortitude needed to follow a smooth trajectory to the majors is remarkable, and something that certainly doesn’t get enough credit for its immense difficult.
Given the challenges for international players, it’s very common for them to draw an attachment to the organization they signed with. After all, this is the team associated with their development not only as a player, but adjusting to the United States as well. Yet, sports are a business, and change can come at any moment. Should a trade happen, the players still need to continue to overcome significant barriers, but has to do so while departing from their first professional organization. There are studies to indicate that traded prospects often underachieve compared to those who stay with one team, and it’s easy to see why.
Take Andres Gimenez’s story as a clear illustration of this. After signing with the Mets as an international free agent out of Venezuela, he demonstrated tremendous adaptability to the professional level, managing to hold his own as a very young player. Then, he was traded to Cleveland in a trade for superstar Francisco Lindor, adding even another layer of pressure to an already difficult game.
Initially, these obstacles got the most of Gimenez. Now, though, he’s an All-Star, and seemingly a potential building block for the Guardians moving forward. So, how did Gimenez overcome these hurdles to get to the impactful player he is now? Let’s take a closer look at one of the shining lights in Cleveland moving forward.
Andres Gimenez’s Rise To High-End Prospect
Between Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the 2015 international signing class will go down as one of the best groups of prospects ever in baseball history. After that, though, the depth of the class, and, ironically, the players expected to be the true stars didn’t ultimately pan out. Well, except for Andres Gimenez.
Ranked as MLB Pipeline‘s 20th ranked player during the international period, Gimenez signed for $1.2 million with the Mets out of Venezuela. Interestingly, he wasn’t even the shortstop the Mets signed to the highest bonus – Gregory Guerrero received $1.5 million – while opinions were split on him; Baseball America went as far as to label him as the #2 prospect in the entire class. Mainly, your evaluation of Gimenez came down to what you valued from a 16-year-old. The consensus was that he was an advanced hitter with excellent defense, but how confident could one be in his power developing? That was the 1.2 million dollar question.
Initially, Gimenez appeared to be proving his proponents correct. In Rookie ball as a 17-year-old, the shortstop slashed .350/.469/.523, walking (16.7%) twice as much as he struck out (8%), while posting an absurd 188 weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+). For context, 100 is league average; Gimenez was 88% better than the average hitter at his level! While that dominance didn’t completely continue (107 wRC+) at Single-A, to be an above-average hitter at the professional level at the same age (18) as high-school seniors is remarkable impressive, enough to have him labeled as the top-100 prospect by Baseball America heading into 2018.
Speaking of 2018, that’s when Gimenez continued to shine. After dominating at High-A, he was able to hold his own as a 19-year-old in Double-A, while also being named to the Future’s Game. Talk about development at a rapid rate! All of a sudden, Baseball America considered him to be a top-30 prospect in the entire sport; he looked to be a clear centerpiece for the Mets moving forward. Even after a slight down year in Double-A (105 wRC+) during the 2019 season, given his age and overall skillset, ascending into an impactful big leaguer still appeared to be extremely likely for him.
At the same time, though, it wasn’t all sunshines and rainbows for Gimenez, as Fangraphs’ pre-2020 report of him clearly stated:
“We now have what you could say is a softer 50 on Gimenez. Defensively, at either short or second, Gimenez’s wide array of skills, especially his range (it’s less important than it used to be because of improved positioning, but Gimenez can really go get it) is going to make him a strong middle infield defender. On offense, even though Gimenez spent 2019 all the way up at Double-A Binghamton, things are less clear. He looked physically overmatched against Double-A pitching, which is fine because he was only 20, but he was also chasing a lot and seemed doomed if he fell behind in counts because of it. The all-fields spray (lots of oppo doubles) that comes when Gimenez targets more hittable pitches is very promising. We’re not optimistic that any kind of impact power will ever come (he’ll golf one out to his pull side once in a while), but the hit tool and doubles would be plenty to profile everyday on the middle infield if Gimenez learns to be more selective.”
The combination of lack of physicality and lack of polished plate discipline certainly was concerning. Sure, Gimenez could likely get by as a strong defensive shortstop, but without strong on-base ability or much power, what was the offensive upside? On the bright side, the floor was very high, with the ceiling of some sort of offensive development still being within reach- that’s the benefit of being as young as he was. Surely, he’d just need more time in the minors to refine his skill set, which, of course, he never got.
Andres Gimenez’s Instant Struggles At The MLB Level
Normally, a player as young and seemingly unrefined as Gimenez would get more time to hopefully put it all together. As we now know, 2020 did not grant many players that wish. With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the minor-league season, Gimenez’s reps would have just come at the team’s alternate site training, but the contending Mets decided to make a surprise move- they decided to place Gimenez on the Opening Day roster.
Remember, this is a player that still wasn’t seen as close to big-league ready. Nevertheless, the team was looking for a pinch-runner to round out their bench, and while that seemed like developmental malpractice, that was clearly a trade-off a win-now team was willing to take. Now, by no means did they expect him to assume any sort of everyday role for them, but, as they say, never say never.
Just a week into the season, Gimenez started to receive regular playing time, and while that became more scattered as the season went on, he certainly contributed much more for the Mets than they likely thought he would. The best part? He adjusted quickly to the MLB level with an above-average 105 wRC+, which, combined with his elite defense and base-running, put him on pace to be a three or four-win player in terms of Fangraphs wins above replacement (fWAR). Considering that there were strong concerns regarding his ability to perform in the big leagues, this was a remarkably encouraging development.
With Steve Cohen taking over as the owner of the Mets, though, the organization was steadfast on contending for a World Series championship. With star shortstop Francisco Lindor available for trade, New York clearly saw their chance; they traded Gimenez, along with Amed Rosario and multiple prospects, to Cleveland for Lindor. Rightfully so, the attention shifted to what Lindor could provide for the Mets, yet for the Guardians to finally trade arguably the face of their franchise, they had to feel very strongly about they return they were getting. After all, as a small-market organization, the way for them to continue to contend, whether it’s optimal for the game or not, often leads with them trading their stars as they get closer to free agency for cheaper players they hope to be nearly as effective; Gimenez was going to be one of the keys of keeping their contention window open.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine his first season in Cleveland starting off worse than it did. With a 43 wRC+ (57% below league-average from the beginning of the season to May 16th, Gimenez was sent down to Triple-A, likely more for his own sanity more than anything else. Between poor plate discipline numbers (3.5% BB, 29.4% K) and limited quality of contact, there wasn’t much of anything for him to hang his hat on based on his production- the trade return for Lindor suddenly was not looking ideal for the now Guardians.
Interestingly, Gimenez, by virtue of a 123 wRC+, rebounded quite well in Triple-A, showcasing much more power (.215 isolated power/ISO) than he had ever before. Now, considering that Triple-A pitching was generally seen as being quite inferior compared to previous seasons, it wasn’t clear how much to take away from this. Still, simply from a confidence standpoint, this stretch turned out to be pivotal for the young infielder.
To be fair, with a 94 wRC+ after being called back up to Cleveland in the beginning of August, it isn’t as though Gimenez lit the world on fire. That being said, we saw his walk and strikeout rates (6.2% BB, 23.2% K) improve, even if the power (2.4% barrel) actually got worse. Things clearly still weren’t perfect, but a slightly below league-average hitter with stellar defense up the middle and high-end base-running is an everyday starter for most MLB teams, and much more in line with the general expectations for him as a prospect.
Nevertheless, surely all sides were hoping for more. Between him expanding the zone (40% chase) consistently with contact issues (29.9% whiff) and significantly below-average quality of contact numbers, there were still a lot of nits to pick with Gimenez’s offensive profile. THE BAT X projected him for a 87 wRC+ and 1.7 fWAR, which are fine numbers, but perhaps closely to a second-division regulator than someone who was the headliner of a trade for Francisco Lindor. Fortunately, those projections and concerns have become a moot point for now.
Hey Now, You’re An All-Star!
Heading into 2022, expectations for Gimenez had seemingly dampened. Although he was on Cleveland’s opening day roster, he was placed in the #9 spot, while he was platooning with Ernie Clement at second base. That doesn’t scream “future All-Star”, though if there’s anything we have learned about baseball, it’s to expect the unexpected.
That’s right; Gimenez is officially an American All-Star, and for good reason. For the season, he’s posted an exceptional 137 wRC+, combining on-base skills (.354 OBP) with much more power (.185 ISO) than anticipated. Meanwhile, this has been no flash in the pan- Gimenez’s underlying data all points to this being 100% deserved.
Given his scouting reports and early MLB data, I don’t think anyone would expect Gimenez to rank in the 51st percentile in barrel rate (8.2%), the most predictive metric for future power production, but here we are! Truly, the quality of contact has improved significantly:
- Barrel Rate: 3.6% to 8.2%
- Hard-Hit Rate: 30.4% to 41.8% (60th percentile)
- Flare/Burner Rate: 19.6% to 26.8%
- Poorly-Hit “Under” Rate: 24.6% to 19.6%
Essentially, Gimenez is hitting the baseball in an ideal trajectory for batting average, while also not coming up short in the power production. That’s a very strong combination, and would portend future success, in spite of a 5.1% walk rate. While he will always be a very aggressive hitter, slightly fewer chases (33.7%) and overall aggression leads to slightly better pitch selection, and, thus, the ability to make contact on pitches he could do damage with.
Speaking of which, Gimenez’s growth against the fastball has been a revelation this season. His expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) against all fastballs has gone up nearly .100 points (.286 to .377), a strong amount, while he’s making tremendously more contact against all three main fastball types:
- 4-Seam Fastball: 33.1% whiff to 28.9% whiff
- Sinker: 28.6% whiff to 17.2% whiff
- Cutter: 24.4% whiff to 5.6% whiff
You’d like to see him not swing-and-miss on so many four-seam fastballs, yet Gimenez has grown significantly in terms of his ability to produce against pitchers on the lower-half of the zone, which is due in large part to the improvement in production versus sinkers. His success over pitches over the heart of the zone (-4 run value to +10) also correlates with doing more damage with all in-zone pitches, particularly changeups (.204 xwOBA to .346 xwOBA). Cleveland has a history of targeting players with strong hit tools and defensive acumen, hoping for power late on. By all measures, Gimenez has become their latest success story.
Now, will this continue? That’s the hope! If there is one nit to pick, though, it’s further projection on his power. Clearly, we’ve seen hit a trough in recent weeks:
Over the post 30 days, Gimenez’s barrel rate has sunk to 4.1%. Now, that has come with fewer strikeouts (12.9%), yet also more swings out of the zone and less swings in the zone, which is an odd combination. On the bright side, though, he’s still hitting the ball as hard (41.9% hard-hit) as ever during this span, so the barrel rate is likely deceiving considering his trajectory of contact remains unchanged. Really, the main concern would be him reverting back to more chases out of the zone, though there are peaks and valleys in a season; at this point, picking off of very small sample sizes would not be the most logical decision.
Now, projections aren’t as optimistic, with his top wRC+ projection coming from ZiPs with a 115 wRC+. This mainly has to due with a decrease in batting average due to worse batted-ball luck and more strikeouts, along with more power. That being said, by now, I think there’s enough information out there to feel more confident about the strikeout rate holding near its current rate (21.3%), while I’d be willing to bet on the higher projections (.172 ISO) of his power. Considering he’s only 23 years old, he surely wouldn’t be the first player to take some time to adjust, and perhaps that needs to be taken into consideration more.
Regardless, someone who is 15-20% above league-average with the bat, along with elite defense up the middle and above-average base-running, is exceptionally valuable. This is a player that you should see on top-ten lists at either middle infield position (especially second base) for a considerable amount of time, as his most likely outcome is that of a player worth around four wins above replacement moving forward. For context, that puts him in line with Ozzie Albies, Javier Baez, and, you guessed it, Francisco Lindor’s 2021 season. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a very valuable player to me!
From signing as a 16-year-old international free agent to performing at high level against older players to being traded from the organization he knew, Andrés Giménez certainly thought he had seen all the challenges baseball had to offer him.
Then came 2021. For someone as young as he was, it can be common to have struggles initially at the MLB level. What separates those who don’t necessarily pan out from the future All-Stars, though, is how they respond to that adversity. Since getting sent down in May of 2021, Gimenez hasn’t looked back, and, now he’s been rewarded for that.
The next time we want to discount a player who hasn’t lived up to expectations, use Giménez as a clear example as to why that exercise isn’t optimal. Players can make adjustments at any time, and for him, it seems as though he’s finally grown into the type of player he’s always had the potential to become. Perhaps there isn’t another peak after this, but a four-win player at a valuable defensive position sure is quite the peak!
When the All-Star game rosters are announced, Andrés Giménez certainly is going to be a player some general baseball observers aren’t familiar with. That being said, there should not be one doubt in his mind as to whether he belongs in the Midsummer Classic. He’s clearly earned it and ought to soak in this tremendous accomplishment. Down the stretch, there certainly will be more adjustments he’ll need to make, though, at this point, how could you doubt him for a single second?