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Eloy Jimenez Opens Prime Prospect Showdown With A Bang

CHARLOTTE—Matchups like the one set to unfold Tuesday night don’t come around often in the minor leagues. At 7:04 p.m., Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez will each take the field at BB&T Ballpark, giving the thousands of fans on hand an early glimpse at baseball’s next wave of young stars.

That could have happened on Monday night, but after five games in a row and a trip in from Buffalo, Guerrero got the night off. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t earned it, either. The Blue Jays’ prodigy homered in four of his last five games, keeping his season batting line at .400/.454/.681 with 18 homers.

Guerrero’s absence meant that Jimenez, ranked No. 3 on BA’s most recent Top 100 Prospects list, had the spotlight all to himself.

He didn’t disappoint.

In his third at-bat, the 21-year-old flicked his wrists and swatted an opposite-field home run off Buffalo starter Jacob Waguespack that pulled Charlotte within two runs. The blast was Jimenez’ second in the last three nights and his 11th in 35 games since being promoted from Double-A Birmingham. Perhaps more impressively, he’s struck out just 18 times in 134 at-bats with Charlotte.

The Knights weren’t sure when Jimenez was going to arrive in the Queen City, but they were ready. Just like last season when Yoan Moncada started the year at Triple-A, the team made sure to have plenty of jersey shirts on hand in their team store for the occasion. The moved marked a departure from the team’s past practices.

“I was hesitant. In my 37 years, it’s never really warranted that,” Knights COO Dan Rajkowski said before Monday’s game. “I can’t remember the last time that we did it. You might order three dozen and you’d have two and a half dozen left, but Moncada was the exception. He had several re-orders. Then we did it with Kopech this year and we’re doing it with Jimenez now, and it catches on.

“People are buying our merchandise. It’s worked out well. I was surprised. I was not a believer that we were going to sell a lot, and I was wrong.” 

The influx of prospects in Charlotte has also brought greater media attention to the team. Beyond appearing nightly on MiLB TV, roughly a dozen Knights games have been telecast in Chicago so fans in the area can get a preview of the next part of their team’s rebuild.

“It really started last year with Moncada, and now we’ve got Jimenez and Kopech and other guys, but those are the ones that get the attention, but there’s a lot of good talent out there” Rajkowski said. “I’m encouraged by the future.”

The same was true in Buffalo with Guerrero. When he started scorching the competition in the Eastern League, the folks in the Bisons’ front office knew it was only a matter of time before Toronto’s prized prospect made his way to the International League.

The timetable was stunted by a knee injury that cost Guerrero roughly a month, but the Blue Jays pulled the trigger and made the move last month, after the younger Guerrero attended his father’s Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown. 

And now, when you click over to the team’s Web site, there’s an advertisement on beckoning fans to purchase one of three styles of Guerrero-branded jerseys and shirts. Even when he was sent back to Double-A New Hampshire after completing his rehab stint in the low minors, Buffalo knew its day would come. 

“It was exciting news, and the fact that the Blue Jays announced it the Saturday before he came was nice so we could build a little bit of momentum for his debut (that) Tuesday,” Bisons announcer Pat Malacaro said.

“We had a little advance warning, which made it nice so that we could have big crowds that week. He was the prospect that we’d hoped to see at some point throughout the year, the fact that he was finally joining the team added a little extra juice to what was already a fun month of July.”

Vlad Jr. Edited

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Guerrero debuted with the Bisons on July 31, and fans came out in droves to Coca-Cola Field. That night’s attendance was 9,477. The team’s average attendance this season is 7,796, but that mark has been goosed significantly in the nine openings since Guerrero arrived.

In those games, Buffalo has drawn 88,889 fans, including four nights of more than 10,000 through the gates. In the previous 48 games, the Bisons averaged 7,405 fans, meaning Guerrero’s week and a half with the team has raised its average attendance by 391 fans per night. That might not seem like a whole lot, but it’s good enough to have jumped the team two spots and into fifth in the league.

Put another way, almost exactly 20 percent of Buffalo’s season attendance has come in Guerrero’s nine games with the team.

“This past weekend we had over 40,000 people, which was one of our biggest weekends of the year,” Malacaro said. “A lot of folks from southern Ontario have been very interested in following him, and it’s not easy to get to New Hampshire. So the fact that he was now an easy ride across the border meant that not only for Buffalo sports fans but southern Ontario Blue Jays fans got to see him on the field. We noticed a nice bump. We already get a nice, healthy fan base from southern Ontario, but it was even moreso (since he’s been here).”

Guerrero and Jimenez’ batting practice sessions drew a ring of reporters, smartphones in hand, around the cage before the game to film every swing taken by the twin prodigies. Fans in both Jimenez and Guerrero jerseys dotted the stands during the game. Ads on the video board in left-center field teased Tuesday’s contest as Eloy vs. Vlad Jr. 

Jimenez set the tone with his blast in the opening game of the series. Now, the stage is set for a second act that should have the eyes of sport thoroughly fixated.

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