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.