SAN DIEGO — Only hours after Atlanta’s 2022 closer, Kenley Jansen, signed a two-year, $18 million contract with Boston on Wednesday, the Braves traded for another large veteran, Detroit right-hander Joe Jiménez, to move into a setup role for their new closer.
The Braves gave up a pair of minor leaguers, including their top position prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy, in exchange for Jiménez, who is one year from free agency and coming off a breakthrough season that included career bests in ERA (3.49), WHIP (1.094) and FIP (2.00) that were fueled by 77 strikeouts and 13 walks in 56 2/3 innings over 62 appearances, a rate of 12.23 strikeouts per nine innings that ranked fifth among AL pitchers with 50 or more innings.
The 27-year-old Puerto Rico native struck out 33.3 percent of the batters he faced to finish among MLB’s top five percent in that category.
“We’ve been trying to acquire him for quite some time,” said Alex Anthopoulos, who said the Braves tried to get Jiménez at the trade deadline after his strong start to the season, but a deal never materialized. “He’s sitting 96 (mph) with the fastball, it’s up to 98, it’s got great extension, it’s got some rise and some hop. He throws strikes with it, he gets miss, slider’s a pretty good pitch as well. He can get both sides of the plate, left-hand hitters, right-hand hitters. He’s still a young man, and we feel he continues to improve and get better.”
Jiménez is the power righty that Anthopoulos said the Braves needed to finish off a bullpen that has Raisel Iglesias moving up to the closer role he occupied with the Angels before Iglesias was traded to the Braves at the deadline. Iglesias served in a setup role to Jansen and met or surpassed all expectations, posting a 0.34 ERA in 28 appearances after the trade. Iglesias is signed through 2025 at $16 million per season.
The Braves gave up Malloy, 22, a third baseman/left fielder rated as their No. 6 overall prospect by Baseball America last month, and lefty Jake Higginbotham, 26, a former 11th-round draft pick who had a 3.30 ERA in four minor-league seasons, including a 4.73 ERA in 48 appearances with Double-A Mississippi.
The Tigers also included cash in the transaction that will cover some of the projected $2.6 million salary of Jiménez, who’s eligible for the final time before free agency. In most cases when cash is included in a trade, it’s to help offset a high salary, but in this case it’s a modest salary to begin with. Some wondered if that might be an indication of how close the Braves are to a self-imposed payroll limit, but Anthopoulos said it was just about evening out the trade.
Welcome to the A, Joe Jiménez! pic.twitter.com/9ERKeQLLhq
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) December 8, 2022
“Look, we’re trying to bridge the gap in value,” Anthopoulos said. “It’s tough when you’re trading young players, and sometimes you’re trying to bridge the gap by getting a player back or getting something else back. The two players plus Jiménez straight up was a little short for us to get a deal done, so getting that cash back — again, it gives us more flexibility with the roster and so on. Just another way to add some value to the deal.”
For the Tigers, the deal was all about getting Malloy, a sixth-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2021 who impressed scouts with his strike-zone recognition and hard-hit rate in college, and did more of the same last season in his first full season of pro ball. He hit .289 with a .408 on-base percentage, 28 doubles and 17 homers in 133 games at three levels — High A through Triple A — and had 97 walks with 138 strikeouts in 591 plate appearances.
Given his size (6-foot-2, 215) and line-drive propensity, scouts and Braves officials believe that he could raise his home run total significantly with more experience.
The Braves moved him from third base to full-time outfield last summer, in large part because they have their corner infielders in place for about the next decade in Austin Riley and Matt Olson. The Braves thought Malloy might be ready to debut in left field at some point in 2023.
“It’s always tough,” Anthopoulos said of including Malloy in the trade. “You would love to keep all your prospects, keep all your young players. Obviously nice job by the amateur scouting staff, to get Malloy in the sixth round, and 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. But look, when we signed Riley to that long-term deal, we shifted (Malloy) to the outfield. Obviously Olson was signed long-term at first base, so third and first were not going to be a position for him in Atlanta.
“And again, Jiménez is someone that we’ve been trying to acquire for a while. At the end of the day, that was the cost to get him. It’s always tough to trade young players, but we’re in a position where we have a chance to contend, to win the championship, and we talk a lot about the importance of bullpen depth. Not just during the playoffs with off days, it’s one thing, but during the season it’s pretty important, with so many games in a row, being able to have guys have days off. Having a deep bullpen keeps everybody upright, keeps everybody healthy and gives (manager Brian Snitker) and the coaches more options.”
Anthopoulos said the Braves checked in with a lot of people and heard glowing reports on Jiménez.
“Great teammate, work ethic is outstanding,” Anthopoulos said. “We put a lot of stock into that, especially with the relievers, with how tight of a group the bullpen is in Atlanta. It’s always been that way, and that started from the guys like Darren O’Day, Josh Tomlin, and then Will Smith, and really set the tone. (Jesse) Chavez and so on, just super high-character guys, quality guys. And it’s become part of the culture of the team. So, knowing that guys are going to come in and fit, all the work that we did (vetting) him, we’re excited to have him.”
Anthopoulos knew that many MLB teams are looking for the same thing — bullpen help — and the second half of the offseason is when most clubs turn more attention to filling out bullpens. So he wanted to make sure they got what they were looking for, without overspending on the free-agent market.
“A lot of teams can use a guy like this, and there was going to be competition for him,” Anthopoulos said. “And it’s something that we felt was pretty important for us to add. We liked our bullpen, but we do think this completes it, and just adds that one more power arm from the right side that we were hopeful and optimistic to add, and he’s someone we had our eye on for a while.
“Having two right-handers in Jiménez and (Collin) McHugh, and (Tyler) Yates on top of it — we’ll see how (Yates) looks in spring but we’re excited about him, so you’re really looking at three — and then the two left-handers (A.J. Minter and Dylan Lee), and then you have Iglesias, who has been a closer basically his entire career. We feel really good about late in games, the back of the bullpen, and more importantly just having depth, not just being three-deep where you’re going to wear those guys out.”
Jiménez had a 2.72 ERA in the first half of his first full season in 2018 to make the AL All-Star team but stumbled to a 7.78 ERA after the break that year and never had a sustained high-level season until this year, when he had the breakout performance that Detroit and its followers had been waiting for — not so patiently in some case, as Jiménez drew the ire of many Tigers fans who were calling for his ouster a year ago.
After posting a 5.43 ERA and 1.402 WHIP in 143 appearances over a three-year span through 2021, including a career worst 7.15 ERA and 2.8 homers allowed per nine innings in the shortened 2020 season and a 5.96 ERA and 1.522 WHIP with 35 walks in 45 1/3 innings in 2021, Jiménez put things together last season.
He had a career-best .609 opponents’ OPS and was dominant against right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .206 average and .506 OPS. Jiménez posted a 2.95 ERA and .560 opponents’ OPS through 60 appearances, before giving up six hits and four runs in his final two outings in mid-September and finishing the season on the injured list with a lumbar strain.
He’s healthy now, and Anthopoulos said the 6-foot-3, 270-pound pitcher told him late Wednesday after the deal was finalized that he’s excited to join the Braves. The former top prospect — he was in the Futures Game in the 2015 and 2016 — spent his entire 10-year pro career in the Tigers organization until now.
“We felt very good about our bullpen last year when we added Iglesias to Kenley and Minter and Lee and McHugh and so on,” Anthopoulos said. “And obviously with Kenley being a free agent, and Iglesias assuming that role, we were short a power right-hander in the bullpen to have what we hope is a very deep, strong bullpen. Adding a guy like Jiménez really completes it for us.”
(Photo of Joe Jiménez: Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)