Tigers trade RHP Joe Jimenez to Atlanta for two prospects

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Wednesday evening, the Detroit Tigers traded relief pitcher Joe Jiménez and cash considerations to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for prospects Justyn-Henry Malloy and Jake Higginbotham.

Jiménez was a popular trade candidate at last year’s trade deadline in the midst of his most successful year as a major leaguer to date, but the former Tigers’ leadership never executed on a deal. Instead, this marks the first major trade made by new President of Baseball Operations, Scott Harris, after taking the reins in Detroit.

Jiménez debuted for Detroit in 2017 after a roaringly successful minor league career as an older international free agent from Puerto Rico, but his time with the Tigers was largely marked by a frustrating gap between his obvious arm talent and lack of good results. He finally seemed to put the pieces together last year. With some tweaks to finally maximize the riding action and vertical attack angle on his fastball, Jiménez finally became the pitcher the Tigers had hoped for all along. Striking out opposing hitters in droves, his walk rate shrank to 5.6 percent and he ended the year with a 3.49 ERA and 2.00 FIP across 56.2 innings. He had the 15th best strikeout percentage in the game among relievers.

In the end, Jiménez never really lived up to the potential as a lockdown closer that some saw in him during his swift rise to the bigs. However, had he grown into one of the game’s better bullpen arms during the time, it’s almost certain that he would have been traded at some point during the Al Avila-led rebuild.

The players returning to the Tigers in this deal are both helium prospects who spent the majority of the 2022 season in the high majors.

A 2021 sixth-rounder, Justyn-Henry Malloy popped at High-A this year and continued raking after a midseason promotion to Double-A. He split time between third base and left field duties during the season, with some reps as a designated hitter mixed in as well. Though he was blocked at the hot corner in Atlanta, one would imagine the Tigers will give him a chance to succeed there before making his transition to an outfield corner permanent.

Malloy batted for a final line of .268/.403./421 in Double-A and finished the season with eight games in Triple-A. He proved himself to be a patient and powerful hitter, rendering any preseason scouting report obsolete and placing himself in the conversation among the best of Atlanta’s prospects by season’s end.

“While Malloy might have above-average raw power, his strike-zone discipline and contact ability drive his value as a prospect. Malloy has one of the keenest batting eyes in Atlanta’s system and chased just 18% of the time while also showing quick hands and good bat-to-ball skills,” wrote Baseball America in their postseason update. “He has a chance to be an above-average hitter who walks at a high rate, though scouts are mixed on his true power potential. His exit velocity numbers are modest, but he has flashed impressive pop to the pull side.”

Harris echoed those sentiments in his comments after the deal was announced, with Malloy sounding almost like a statement of intent as to the type of hitting profile he’s looking to install in the Tigers’ lineup.

After the trade went public, Scott Harris reportedly said Malloy has the potential to contribute in reshaping the Tigers offensive identity. Coupled with his existing success in the Double-A and Harris’ previous remarks about “earmarking” at-bats for young players, expect to see Malloy in Detroit at some point next season. There’s a non-zero chance he will be given a shot at a roster spot out of spring training, though a midseason promotion seems more likely.

Jake Higginbotham, the other player coming to Detroit in this deal, is a 26-year-old relief arm with a fastball that can reach the mid-90’s. The Braves acquired him in the 11th round of the 2018 draft from Clemson, but his progress was stalled and he put in a full season’s work last year on the mound for the first time since 2019.

His 4.73 ERA is a bit tough to look at, but that number is skewed nearly a run and a half high by a small handful of truly horrific early season outings. By removing just the month of April from his numbers, his ERA drops to 3.45, a much easier number to stomach. Of course it’s his peripherals and the potential that the Tigers’ are buying on here, in the hopes that the Tigers can help him take the next step..

He’s a decidedly less exciting prospect than Malloy — Harris’ comment that “you can never have too much pitching” is certainly a less shining endorsement — but the Tigers have done nearly miraculous things with pitchers whose skillset they like in recent years. With a low- to mid-90s fastball and a slider that’s tough on same-handed hitters, Higginbotham could contribute as a lefty specialist or low leverage relief guy out of the bullpen next season.

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