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Looking for Relief

Veteran or former closers were in the headlines as Brad Boxberger was dealt to Arizona and Jim Johnson moved to the Los Angeles Angels, both in exchange for minor league arms.

The Rays closer in 2015, Boxberger spent much of 2016 either ineffective or on the disabled list or both and then missed most of 2 017 due to a back injury. Though only a small 29.1 inning sample, once healthy, the righty re-established his dominance with a 12.3 K/9 and improved his control to a 3.4 BB/9 mark. Long-balls continue to be a problem for him, however, his career home runs on fly balls rate standing at 14%. As an arbitration candidate, a not insignificant pay raise is coming his way which may have been expedited the move. Archie Bradley has been penciled in to close for the Diamondbacks despite just a single career save and Boxberger will give them another option to consider this spring. Worst case he is poised to be the number one closer insurance policy.

He still works with a plus fastball, nasty slider, and changeup combination and his layoff have not resulted in any decline in velocity. However, he has shown to be somewhat injury prone and volatile in terms of control and as mentioned, home run allowance. Even if he wins the closer job outright, an aggressive investment is not recommended.

Jim Johnson, meanwhile returns to his AL roots after two years with the Braves and at this point in time may be utilized more in a setup or middle relief role with the emergence of Blake Parker and Cam Bedrosian, but as a pitcher with 176 career saves, he could easily end up back in the role if others falter. Earlier in his career, Johnson was known as a pitch to contact, extreme groundball pitcher type with above average command a mid-nineties fastball. In recent seasons, however, his curveball has become a more effective weapon and his strikeout rates have climbed to more than a batter per inning even though he does not throw quite as hard as he did at his peak. This season his command crumbled from a 2.8 to a 4.0 BB/9 awhile his groundball rates dropped to under 50% for the first time in his career. The result, despite a career-high 9.7 K/9, was terrible across the board. The 34-year old has been written off before, only to rise from the dead. It would be unwise to write him off a second time, but still should only be considered as an endgame option or not all on draft day if he doesn’t claim the closer’s role.

Moving on to the minor leagues, the Rays acquired Curtis Taylor from the Diamondbacks. Taylor is a projectable, 6’6” right-hander who pitched in A-ball last year, posting a 9.8 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9. He was being used as a starter, but his upper nineties fastball and slider may lend themselves better to a relief role in the long run. He’ll move up to A+ ball next year, but a change in roles could move him through the system at a much faster rate.

Justin Kelly was acquired along with pool money from the Angels for Johnson. The 24-year old started in rookie ball and proceeded to then pitch at 4 subsequent levels, ultimately ending up in AAA before the season ended. Just because he moved that many levels do not mean he is any good. A former 33rd round pick, drafted just four shy of being drafted 1000th overall, tops out in the eighties and works with average at best pitches. Expect him to spend almost the entirety of 2018, if not his career, in AAA.

Diamond Exchange: A Duo of Deals

Trade Background: A busy Wednesday for the Mariners ended in two trades and moving several key members of their farm system. The first deal with Atlanta sent Luiz Gohara and Thomas Burrows to them in exchange for Mallex Smith and Shae Simmons. The second with Tampa Bay sent Smith on to his second team of the day along with Carlos Vargas and Ryan Yarbrough. for Drew Smyly.

It has been no secret the Mariners are targeting veteran starters to shore up their rotation and it appears they have their final piece as they head towards spring training. The M’s are also taking a chance that Simmons is healthy and could add him to the bullpen mix this spring or by mid-season.

For the Braves this is all about acquiring arms with upside and both Gohara and Burrows have some, especially Gohara.

The Rays, content to move on from Smyly, also chased young talent. Smith fits a theme amongst Rays outfielders in terms of speed and defense rather than power. Carlos Vargas has the potential to be the steal of the deal but is only 17 and it may be years before he is relevant, if at all. Yarbrough contrasts against Vargas as near major league ready journeyman who gives the Rays another in-house option that they could put to use as soon as this season.

Roster Impacts: The deal contains relatively few MLB roster impacts despite the number of players changing hands. Smyly, health permitting, slots into a Mariner’s rotation slot that Ariel Miranda and Chris Heston might have competed. One of the two will now vie for a long-relief role while the other will likely be held in reserve in Triple-A.  Shae Simmons will be given a look in spring training for a relief role and may, if healthy, have some upside as a setup man or more. The Braves acquisitions are both slated for the minors while Mallex Smith and Ryan Yarbrough should see some MLB action, but neither appears to be opening day roster candidates. Colby Rasmus, Kevin Kiermaier, and Steven Souza man the Rays’ outfield with Corey Dickerson at DH, plus they’re likely to also carry Mikie Mahtook and Nick Franklin on the roster. Yarbrough also faces an uphill climb with a number of pitchers with either more experience or greater upside likely to appear on the AAA roster. Carlos Vargas, meanwhile, will likely only play in short-season level ball.

Player Analysis: 2016 was the first season Smyly made 30 starts in a season. He has also yet to throw more than 175 innings in a single year. All this came last season and was after throwing fewer than 100 innings in the previous season. So, right off the bat, Smyly considering his injury history and usage history is someone who has to be handled carefully and that a fifth starter’s role, regardless of his skill level compared to pitchers such as Yovani Gallardo, may be a good idea. A fly-ball pitcher who regularly posts fairly high HR/FB and HR/9 numbers, Smyly may not benefit as much as one might think at first glass from to Safeco as Tropicana Field has been somewhat comparable in terms of home runs regardless of handedness. Smyly does to his credit still have above average command and can still miss bats high rates, but as long as the long ball issue remains it is hard to see him as a sub-4.00 ERA pitcher.

Shae Simmons has taken a long while to work his way back from Tommy John surgery. He remains a hard thrower averaging over 95 mph on his fastball. He generates plenty of groundballs and has a slider that flashes plus at times, but struggles to consistently command either of his pitches. Simmons is a reliever with a wide range of outcomes from possible closer to Triple-A roster filler but should get a few opportunities this season to showcase his stuff.

Mallex Smith is a bit buried on the Rays depth charts at the moment, but at a minimum because of his speed and defensive skills should receive a cup of coffee or two in the Majors. At best, he could challenge for the starting left field job. Smith’s main draw is his speed which is well above average and his minor league career shows a history of someone who is willing to both draw walks and who tries to play within his game as a more contact-oriented hitter fully aware of his limited power potential as clearly seen in his 60% groundball rates at the MLB Level. Smith, 23, has yet to translate the walk rates from the lower minors to even Triple-A and did not show his contact-making skills during his MLB stint with the Braves. There is .280+/40+ stolen base potential here, but he’ll have to improve his contact, show a better batting eye, and make major improvements against left-handers after hitting .080 against them in a small sample (50 at-bats) with the Braves.

Ryan Yarbrough, a former fourth-round pick, is a 25-year old left-hander known for his good command and ability to induce groundballs at high rates. He’s a pitch to contact type likely to end up a back-end of the rotation inning eater or long man out of the bullpen.

Carlos Vargas will turn 18 less than a month before opening day. He is currently listed as a shortstop and will remain there for now. In time though he may move to the hot corner or an outfield spot given his plus arm. Vargas handled rookie ball quite well showing an advanced feel for the strike zone, a quick, contact-making bat, and already emerging power. There is some reason for excitement here but on the other hand, at his age, it is difficult to justify drafting him except in keeper/dynasty leagues with deep minor league rosters.

Luiz Gohara, 20, was one of the better young arms in the Mariner’s system. A left-hander, Gohara is regularly in the mid to upper nineties fastball and compliments that plus pitch with a plus slider, striking out well more than a batter an inning. He topped off his season by impressing in the hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League, striking out over 14 batters per nine innings as one of the youngest players in a prospect-heavy league. He should move up to full season A+ ball this year.

Thomas Burrows, a college closer and a 2016 4th round pick, has the potential to move quickly through the Rays’ system. However, he does not project to his college role in the majors, lacking a power pitch or a dominating strikeout pitch for that matter, but does at least have more than enough to be more than a situational lefty.

Final Thoughts: The overall impact of this trade for fantasy leaguers may not be all that great, at least in 2017. Gohara would have first appeared on dynasty/keeper league radar this season, but AL-only players now lose that opportunity. Smyly’s value is not hinged to his team so much as it is linked to his health and gopheritis. Vargas is worthy of consideration, as mentioned, for dynasty leaguers. Simmons and especially Smith have sleeper potential and are both worth keeping eyes upon in the near and far future. Smith’s proximity to the majors and stolen base potential alone make him a prime target in late rounds/minor league drafts in AL-only leagues. The fact that it is Colby Rasmus and other journeymen ahead of him on the depth charts makes taking a flier on him all the more reasonable.