The Braves and Tigers Swap Production for Potential

© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves have taken a heterodox approach to building a bullpen in recent years. Sometimes they apply the overall team strategy of strongly preferring players with ties to Georgia, like Collin McHugh and former Brave Will Smith. Sometimes they take fliers on players looking to reinvigorate their careers, like Kirby Yates and Nick Anderson. Sometimes they fleece the Angels for Raisel Iglesias, or sign a good closer to a short-term deal like Kenley Jansen, or draft and develop an A.J. Minter. Heck, sometimes they just call Jesse Chavez, and he magically appears in the bullpen.

This week, they’re trying a new tack, making a trade to shore up their already-solid relief corps. It wasn’t the biggest transaction of the week or anywhere near it, but every transaction deserves a little analysis. Let’s talk Braves and Tigers. Let’s talk Joe Jiménez, Justyn-Henry Malloy, and Jake Higginbotham:

Jiménez is a walking advertisement for reliever volatility. Depending on the year, he’s been either excellent or near-unplayable. His true talent level likely lies somewhere in between his superlative 2022, when he struck out a third of opposing batters to go with pinpoint control, and his ’21, when he ran a 16.7% walk rate and an ERA approaching 6.00. Sure, relievers are volatile, but Jiménez has been really volatile.

Why was he so much better in 2022? Essentially, he threw more strikes. Jiménez’s best pitch is a four-seamer that does exactly what you’d expect, missing bats high in the zone thanks to spin, velocity, and shape. He struggled to locate the pitch in 2020 and ’21, too often leaving it either too high above the zone or off the plate away. An overpowering fastball is a great pitch, but no matter how good it is, hitters won’t swing unless it’s at least close to the zone.

Viewed through the lens of zone rate, the last three years make more sense:

When he dips down towards 40%, Jiménez’s control makes him mostly unplayable. When he hovers in the upper 40s, batters flail helplessly and he racks up strikeouts. It’s more complicated than that, but it’s not a lot more complicated. He didn’t make any huge mechanical changes, or develop a new pitch to help him find the zone in key spots. He just located his fastball better, and success followed.

I won’t try to pretend like I know how Jiménez will fare next season, but I understand what Atlanta is thinking here. They had one of the best bullpens in baseball this year, and while 2023’s iteration certainly has a high ceiling, it’s full of high-variance arms. Jiménez is another one of those, and if Atlanta can get two dominant relievers out of him, Anderson, and Yates, they’ll likely have one of the best groups in baseball again.

The Tigers had a solid bullpen this year, but they had a poor everything else, more or less. I don’t look at Detroit’s roster and think “boy, they were one great reliever away from contention,” and Jiménez will be a free agent after 2023. It made sense to deal him, and I think that the slew of early reliever signings provided the kick in the pants the Braves needed to make Detroit a compelling offer.

Speaking of that compelling offer: it’s heavy on names that would feel right at home on Bridgerton. Justyn-Henry Malloy is the headliner, a powerful but raw corner infield/outfield prospect. He was a sixth round pick in 2021, but tore through the minors this season thanks to a combination of power and patience.

As a late-developing college hitter – he spent two-thirds of his college career on the bench at Vanderbilt – there’s a ton of uncertainty around Malloy in general. His raw power is average, though there’s room for more based on his frame. He simply tapped into a ton of it this year, spraying line drives and frequently pulling hard-hit balls in the air. He’s 6-foot-3 and powerfully built, so you can imagine more power developing. He also posted a gaudy 16.4% walk rate, driven by elite pitch recognition that wouldn’t look out of place in the majors. That’s all the more impressive given how few high-level reps he has.

The biggest problem with Malloy’s future, at least from Atlanta’s perspective, is that his natural fit is at first or third base, neither of which are likely to become available at the major league level any time soon. That led the team to move him to left field, and posting his hitting numbers while learning a new position in his first full year as a professional is quite impressive.

The risks in his profile will sound familiar, because he fits a major league archetype we’ve all seen a lot of in recent years: he has an uphill swing that leads to whiffs high in the strike zone. Combine average raw power with mixed contact numbers, and there are plenty of scenarios where his bat never develops into a difference maker. If that’s the case, his defense probably won’t save him; he’s corners-only and Eric Longenhagen pegs him as below average there. Overall, Eric has him as a 40 FV prospect, a corner-infield role player in the J.D. Davis mold. Here’s some video from Malloy’s Arizona Fall League stint this year:

Jake Higginbotham, the other piece of the trade, looks more like an up-and-down reliever at best to me. He was an 11th round pick in the 2018 draft and has topped out at Double-A so far. Like plenty of players who look intriguing but on whom I wouldn’t bet the farm, his best pitch is a fastball, and the challenge will be finding something to go with it.

The fastball is good! He’s a lefty who throws in the mid-90s, and Eric notes that his vertical arm slot gives it plus ride. His slider comes out of the same arm slot, more sharp than sweeping, but profiles as below average. That leads Eric to share my conclusion: he’s most likely a fringe big leaguer or depth piece. You never know when something will click, and stockpiling relievers with plus fastballs isn’t a bad thing, but he’s the cherry on top in this deal, while Malloy is the entire ice cream sundae.

I’ll level with you: I think this is a great deal for the Tigers and a head-scratcher for the Braves. I don’t think Jiménez is bad or anything, but I don’t think he’s a transformative reliever, and Atlanta is only getting him for a year anyway. There’s no guarantee Malloy pans out, but you don’t have to look further than 2022 to see the upside. Michael Harris II and Vaughn Grissom both went from being unheralded prospects to solid major leaguers in short order.

Most likely, that won’t happen. Prospects flame out all the time, or never quite reach a high enough peak to contribute in the majors. To that argument, I say: So what? There’s a pretty decent chance that Jiménez won’t meaningfully change Atlanta’s fortunes next year. He might just be 2021 Jiménez again, even. The Braves have done a really good job assembling their bullpen in recent years, finding overlooked gems in free agency or out-of-favor relievers looking for new teams. This feels less like that; they don’t have the deepest farm system in the world, and Malloy provided some upside. I sympathize with Atlanta’s goal of shoring up the bullpen, but I think I would have trawled free agency and the waiver wire for a while longer before making this deal.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

The Braves, at most, will be paying $3 million for Jimenez’ service for 2023. It’s hard to find a reliever with the kind of ceiling he has for that price. Especially in this free agent market.

1 year ago
Reply to  Cam78

Right now the Braves are looking like super geniuses with all the contract extensions they signed with their core players before this offseason, except for Dansby. Jimenez is a great add to slot in behind Iglesias (who looks like a super bargain salarywise right now), and the price is dirt cheap.

1 year ago
Reply to  Cam78

Three million plus two prospects.

Looking at Jimenez’s career, how often has he been close to his ceiling?