SAN DIEGO — Darkness had already descended upon the Pacific coast. Some clubs had their executives wheeling suitcases out of the Manchester Grand Hyatt and headed to the airport. The most eventful three days of the Winter Meetings were all but over, and it seemed the Tigers might leave San Diego with nothing to show.
Then, near 6:20 p.m. PT, the news came. All those constant conversations and late-night phone calls Scott Harris had been alluding to? They produced something tangible.
The Tigers traded right-handed relief pitcher Joe Jiménez and cash considerations to the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday. In return, Detroit got third baseman/outfielder Justyn-Henry Malloy and left-handed reliever Jake Higginbotham.
On the surface, the deal might not look like much. The Tigers traded a pitcher coming off a great year, a swing-and-miss reliever with top-tier metrics, for two prospects.
But Wednesday night in his hotel suite, Harris could finally strike a different tone after two evenings of standing at a high-top table, sometimes laughing or casting a sly grin at questions he couldn’t exactly answer without giving too much away.
On the third night, Harris seemed excited about the deal, one that makes a lot of sense for both teams on paper.
The contending Braves add another option to their bullpen. Although Jiménez’s Tigers career was an up-and-down odyssey, he had a 3.49 ERA last season and finally showed signs of consistency. He was also on an expiring deal entering 2023, so his name popped up in rumors at this past year’s trade deadline. Back then, the Tigers were unable to trade him in exchange for young hitting.
Now the Tigers get a prospect, Malloy, who fits exactly the type of offensive profile Harris hopes to bring more of to Detroit. Malloy entered Wednesday as the Braves’ top-ranked position prospect, No. 6 in their system, according to Baseball America. That same publication named Malloy as having the best bat-to-ball skills and the best strike-zone discipline in Atlanta’s system.
“Joe was gonna be a free agent at the end of next year,” Harris said. “He can help us in the big leagues. We really need that in the big leagues. But ultimately the ability to add a young player who’s not on the 40-man roster right now but has been climbing toward the big leagues very quickly and putting up the type of performance that we really value, plus adding Jake, it became too much to pass up on.”
Malloy hit .289 with 17 home runs and a .408 on-base percentage across three levels of the minor leagues last season. He finished in Triple A, then made a strong impression in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .306. The Athletic’s Keith Law scouted Malloy in the AFL and wrote Malloy showed “better off-speed recognition and ridiculous strength, driving a slider from a right-hander (so he didn’t have the platoon advantage) to right-center for a hard-hit double and turning on average velocity whenever he saw it.”
Wednesday night in San Diego, Harris indicated the Tigers had targeted Malloy as a player they hoped to add to their system. He fits Harris’ mission of building a team that better controls the strike zone quite well.
“Justyn-Henry Malloy is the type of hitter that will help us reshape our offensive identity,” Harris said.
Malloy has posted double-digit walk rates throughout his minor-league career. He was a sixth-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2021 and is still only 22 years old. Harris said it is “probably a safe assumption” Malloy starts next season in Triple A but didn’t exclude the idea of his playing in the majors by year’s end. Harris said the Tigers want Malloy to continue playing third base and corner outfield spots, though there could be some uncertainty around Malloy’s ultimate defensive home.
“He’s been dictating his own development in his pro career,” Harris said. “He hasn’t been a professional baseball player that long, and he’s already in Triple A and he’s already performing in the Arizona Fall League, so I certainly wouldn’t rule (making his debut) out.”
With Higginbotham, the Tigers get a left-hander who had a 4.73 ERA in Double A last season. He was an 11th-round pick out of Clemson in 2018 and has averaged 9.4 K/9 across his minor-league career.
“Higginbotham is a left-handed reliever who has a fastball that touches the mid-90s, has a slider that is really effective at limiting damage, and he’s been really tough on left-handed hitters throughout his career,” Harris said.
The Tigers made another interesting pitching addition earlier Wednesday when they selected right-hander Mason Englert from the Rangers in the Rule 5 draft. Some in the industry were surprised Englert had not been protected on the Rangers’ 40-man roster.
Englert was a fourth-round pick out of high school in 2018 but has little mileage on his arm. He had Tommy John surgery in 2019 and missed the pandemic season in 2020. He has since posted a 3.93 ERA in his minor-league career, topping out last season in Double A.
He has averaged 10.2 K/9 and is known for a fading changeup. He showed upticks in his fastball velocity in the second half of last season, placing him in the 92-96 mph range, and transformed his slider into a harder, biting pitch.
Harris said the Tigers want Englert to stretch out as if he were a starter in spring training, though they plan to experiment with him in a few different roles. If the Tigers do not keep Englert on the active roster all season, he could be returned to the Rangers.
“The things we like about him are he pounded the zone throughout the minor leagues, he flashed four swing-and-miss weapons, and it felt like he was getting better throughout the season,” Harris said. “I think for him there’s a chance the stuff will tick up even more another year out of surgery. We think he has the shapes and the power that can compete against major-league hitters, and we’re going to see if he can do it.”
Wednesday’s moves allow the Tigers to leave San Diego with something to show. Harris’ first trade as president of baseball operations looks solid on paper and has the potential to age even better. Harris stood in his suite wearing a gray hoodie, a little more relaxed after having finally completed a deal.
So if there is any criticism as the Tigers trek deeper into the offseason, it is the fact there’s still little clarity on how the Tigers plan to improve their MLB roster in 2023. Harris talked this week about investing in development, of “earmarking” innings for young players in both ’23 and into the future. He also did not want to label this upcoming season as another rebuilding year.
We don’t yet have many answers about 2023, about whether the Tigers can construct a good enough roster to be somewhat competitive or whether it will be a transitional year full of experiments.
We do, though, have a deal. It’s a good, old-fashioned trade that might just work well for both clubs.
(Top photo: Ed Zurga / Getty Images)