First big move from Detroit Tigers’ Scott Harris shows his blueprint for winning in future

Detroit Free Press

SAN DIEGO — When Scott Harris joined the Detroit Tigers nearly three months ago, he outlined three main goals for his tenure: acquire, develop and retain young players, create a culture of development and dominate the strike zone on both sides of the ball.

On Wednesday, the first-year president of baseball operations backed up his comments from the past with a significant trade in the present. Look no further than Justyn-Henry Malloy, who turns 23 in February, as an example of his blueprint to win.

“Our main priority this offseason is to reshape our offensive identity,” Harris said Wednesday night from his suite at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. “This is a step in that direction.”

Malloy, assuming he makes his MLB debut midway through this season, won’t become a free agent until after the 2029 campaign. The former sixth-round pick combined for a 16.4% walk rate at three levels last season, to go with a 23.4% strikeout rate, and cruised through the minor leagues.

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“The one thing I take pride in is commanding the zone,” Malloy told Fangraphs’ David Laurila in October 2022. “The way that I’m able to do damage is put myself into damage counts. If I’m able to swing at the pitches I need to and take the pitches that I need to for balls to put myself in plus counts, that’s where I’m going to be able to do my damage.”

The Tigers acquired Malloy (and left-handed reliever Jake Higginbotham) from the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday, the final day of baseball’s winter meetings, in exchange for right-handed reliever Joe Jiménez and cash considerations.

Jiménez, who turns 28 in January and is coming off the best season of his career, becomes a free agent after 2023. This trade — six years of team control (for two players) in exchange for one year of team control — is another sign the Tigers probably won’t contend for a postseason spot despite a weak American League Central.

That reality is a tough pill to swallow for some fans, especially after enduring six years of a failed rebuild, but the Tigers have a new vision under new leadership. Spending more money, considering the previous state of the organization, isn’t conducive to maintaining success over a long period of time.

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The Tigers posted a 7.3% walk rate — ranking 27th among 30 MLB teams — from 2017-22, including a 29th-ranked 6.5% mark last season. If you can’t draw walks, don’t expect to play for the Tigers. Harris almost immediately dumped mainstays Victor Reyes (3.8% career walk rate), Harold Castro (3.7%) and Willi Castro (4.7%).

It’s clear Harris has a plan; he just completed his first big move by adding a young player who dominates the strike zone and has room to improve under a development-focused coaching staff in a revamped hitting department.

“(He) is the type of hitter that can help us reshape our offensive identity,” Harris said. “He embodies a lot of the things that we really value in hitters. He controls the strike zone. He has plus bat-to-ball skills. He does damage to all fields, and he raked at three different levels, plus the Arizona Fall League.”

Digging into Justyn-Henry Malloy

Malloy is a quality prospect and has the upside to be an everyday player in the Tigers’ lineup within the next year. He is expected to begin the 2023 season in Triple-A Toledo and appears on track for his MLB debut at some point during the season.

In 2022, Malloy hit .289 with a .408 on-base percentage and an .862 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 133 games at High-A Rome (71 games), Double-A Mississippi (54 games) and Triple-A Gwinnett (eight games). He registered 17 home runs, 97 walks and 138 strikeouts.

“It’s always tough,” Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos, who tried to trade for Jiménez at last season’s trade deadline, told reporters Wednesday night. “You would love to keep all your prospects, keep all your young players. Look, nice job by the amateur scouting staff to get Malloy in the sixth round and a fantastic job by the player development staff to have him move through the system and play the way he did. He did a really nice job for us and we were excited about him.”

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After the regular season, Malloy played 20 games in the Arizona Fall League. He hit .306 with one home run, 16 walks and 20 strikeouts. The former Georgia Tech standout maintained his healthy approach over a total of 153 games.

“I wanted to be consistent,” Malloy told Fangraphs’ Laurila. “That’s the most important thing you can be. If you want to be a big leaguer, you better be consistent. I think your organization needs to know what this guy is going to be on an everyday basis. There’s a lot of pride in consistency.”

The right-handed hitter, who plays third base and left field, is known for average contact skills, power with above-average swing decisions and consistently putting the barrel of the bat on the ball. His swing-and-miss rate on softer pitches is something to monitor, but he rarely chases them.

An interesting note: Malloy has never hit an opposite-field home run in his 170-game minor league career, which includes 22 home runs. He demolished one homer to the right of dead center field in the minors that was on the borderline but nothing to right field.

Almost all of his line-drive hits to the right side of the field are singles.

But Malloy’s batted-ball data undoubtedly suggests power potential to all fields, even if his power is to the pull side for now. This is an area where the Tigers’ new hitting department can flex its muscles as their new prospect matures.

“It’s going to be a priority for us to make sure that we carve out enough space in our pitching staff and in our position playing group for young players to come up and get that invaluable opportunity,” Harris said. “That’s also why we built a development-centric coaching staff. It’s going to be really important for us to make sure that those young players are actually getting better when they’re in the big leagues. You can’t do that without distributing some of that opportunity to young players.”

Another interesting piece of information: Malloy saw 4.36 pitches per plate appearance last season. Harris has said he wants hitters to put pressure on opposing pitchers, and once again, Malloy fits the scheme. In 2022, Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Matt Chapman led MLB players with 4.24 pitches per plate appearances.

The Tigers ranked 26th as a team at 3.81 pitches.

“If he’s not throwing strikes, then I’m going to walk,” Malloy told Fangraphs. “Just taking what the game gives me and not trying to do too much is that happy balance of what I’m really trying to do.”

There’s more to unpack down the road, but in trading a soon-to-be free agent in Jiménez, the Tigers feel confident they’ve acquired a player who can help fix the inadequacies on offense.

Simply put, Malloy is a piece to the puzzle as Harris follows his blueprint to construct the new-look Tigers.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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