GLENDALE, Ariz. — It’s hard to measure the value of a first full major-league season.
Eloy Jimenez didn’t know what he was in for, and he still swatted 31 home runs in 122 games.
The speed of the major-league game caught Jimenez off guard. The quality of pitchers and their knowledge of how to get him out was eye-opening. And then there was the self-imposed pressure of justifying a $43 million contract signed during spring training before he had played a game.
“At the beginning [of the season], I’m not going to lie, I had too much pressure because I tried to do too much,” Jimenez said Monday on the first official day of spring training for position players. “And the injuries [high ankle sprain, elbow] didn’t help me a lot. At the end, I felt like everything was slowed down and was easy because I just tried to play the game and enjoy the game.”
In September, Jimenez had a .340/.383/.710 slash line with nine homers and 25 RBI. With a full season, and that finish behind him, Jimenez is a picture of relaxed self-confidence this spring.
Luis Robert, who signed a six-year, $50 million deal to play center field next to Jimenez, will go through the same things Jimenez did: pressure, pitchers pounding breaking stuff down and away, getting him to chase.
All of it with that hefty price tag attached to him.
“It’s normal because you have a contract before you’ve played in the majors, and you want to show the people what you can do,” Jimenez said. “That’s why it’s a little bit hard the first month. But he’ll get used to it, and he’s going to be good.”
The silver lining, Jimenez, 23, said with a wink, is that Robert, 22, will take some scrutiny away from him.
Jimenez still will draw plenty of attention, especially if he increases his long-ball pace to, say, 50 homers. He was asked if that big number was within reach and didn’t back away.
“Why not?” Jimenez said. “Yeah, it’s a big number, but my goal is every year to have better numbers than the past year. So I think, one day, I can hit 50-plus. But let’s see.”
Jimenez’s defense, which was below-average at best last season, will be watched closely. His motivation to improve it, he said, is to avoid being subbed out for a defensive replacement late in games.
“We really need him to step it up and improve on his defensive end in left field,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He started having some growth out there last year. I asked him, do you want me to take you out in the seventh, eighth or ninth? He goes, ‘No.’ ’’
Renteria’s message in a nutshell: Understand your role and responsibility defensively.
“I want to play nine innings,” Jimenez said. “So that’s why this year I’m putting more effort into the defense.”
Immense hitting talent aside, Jimenez hasn’t mastered the game and expects to endure a valley or two again this season. While Robert has fellow Cubans Jose Abreu and Yoan Moncada to mentor him, Jimenez now has fellow Dominican Edwin Encarnacion, whom he has known since he was 14, for advice.
After Jimenez signed with the Cubs, Encarnacion advised him to not let the money change him and to not try to do too much on the field.
“I appreciate him because he’s always treated me as a kid he loves,” Jimenez said. “It’s good to have a veteran who takes care of me.”