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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.

It’s All About the Glove: Breaking Down the Adeiny Hechavarria Deal

Trade Background: It’s all about the glove, at least from the Rays’ point of view. The Rays dealt minor leaguers Braxton Lee and Ethan Clark for Adeiny Hechavarria. From the Marlins, it was about getting rid of the remainder of Hechavarria’s $4.4 M dollar salary. Long term that makes him a non-tender candidate as he’ll head to arbitration once again this Fall, but that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

Roster Ramifications: Hechavarria was on the DL with the Marlins and will be activated later this week, so a corresponding move has yet to be made. He’ll take over as the primary shortstop with Tim Beckham and Daniel Robertson splitting time at second base. Taylor Featherston could end up the roster casualty though it could possibly be Robertson being sent down too since he has options remaining. The returns of Brad Miller and Matt Duffy, both not until the second half for Duffy for certain and possibly for Miller, will shuffle up this whole middle infield situation again in time.

For the Marlins, since Hechavarria was already on the DL, the deal does not result in any MLB-level roster changes. What it does is lock in J.T. Riddle as their primary shortstop. The Marlins do not have any other shortstop prospects close to MLB ready and so it is sink or swim time for Riddle. They do, however, have an array of journeyman/veterans with plenty of MLB experience in Triple-A to fill in should the need arise.

As for the minors, Braxton Lee will head to Double-A Jacksonville and Ethan Clark is moving to Low-A Greensboro.

Player Analysis: Without his plus glove Hechavarria would not have much of an MLB career. The 28-year old makes a reasonable amount of contact but lacks power, patience, and though he runs well, is not much of a stolen base threat. At best, the righty may provide a .270s to .280s batting average and single digit HR and SB totals.

Braxton Lee, 23, was a 2014 12th round draft pick by the Rays. A 5’10” centerfielder with well above average speed, Lee brings a decent approach to the plate, combining moderate selectivity and some contact making skills in an effort to put the ball on the ground and leg it out as much as possible. Not surprisingly the result is an almost complete lack of a power-hitting game. In fact, his first two professional home runs came this year in his fourth season of pro ball. He was having a nice season with a .318/.387/.391 slash along with 12 steals, but still barely surfaces on the prospect radar. Expect him to be on the journeyman/fifth outfielder career path.

Ethan Clark is not a high-pedigree prospect either. The 22-year old was a 2015 15th round draft pick and has worked in both starting and relief since signing with the Rays. Despite standing about 6’6”, Clark is not a power pitcher per se, but he has good command and his primary pitch is a heavy sinker that he mixes with a changeup and curve. In 55 innings Clark has posted an 8.2 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9. At best, he projects as a back-end of the rotation starter or middle reliever. The development of a secondary pitch as a true swing and miss offering is the key here.

Conclusions: The Rays were determined to upgrade their defense and they accomplished that goal though it is uncertain whether or not Hechevarria will eventually fade into a defensive replacement role once Duffy and Miller both return to the scene. The Marlins meanwhile managed to shed some salary and acquire two prospects, though neither has a high ceiling, both have their utility and could contribute at the MLB level in time.

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.

Blake Snell Gets the Call

The Tampa Rays will call up their top pitching prospect, Blake Snell, to make what appears to be a one-time spot start against the Yankees tomorrow. While Snell’s short-term value is suspect particularly since he has yet to work beyond five innings in Triple-A season, he’s certainly a grab and stash type if available in redraft leagues given that he could get a more extended look later this season. It would be highly unlikely to find him available in keeper or dynasty league formats on the free agent market.

Background and Analysis: Snell was a supplemental first-round draft pick back in 2011 by the Rays. The left-hander was considered a fairly middling prospect for the earlier portion of his professional career, battling command issues and owning a fairly unrefined, though projectable, arsenal of pitches. 2015 was a complete break-through. Snell increased the velocity on his fastball, regularly touching the mid-nineties, and elevated his changeup to become possibly his best pitch. That pitch, in combination with what was already a plus slider, gives him multiple swing and miss pitches. All of this occurred as he simultaneously improved his command, dropping his walk rates to the sub 4.0 range at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels.

The end result was a pitcher with a four-pitch repertoire including three-plus offerings including multiple weapons against right-handers, improved command, and the plus sinker to keep the ball on the ground and in the park. As a result, Snell leaped on the prospect radar becoming one of the better pitching prospects in the game today.

Fast forward to 2016, Snell has been fairly dominant in three Triple-A starts with a 13.2 K/9 over 14.1 innings. It should be noted, however, that in two of his three starts he walked 3 batters in under 5 innings of work in each outing and has a teeny sample size walk rate over the 4.0 mark.

Overall there is a tremendous amount to like about Snell, but his control after only a single season of showing some improvement still remains at least a yellow flag to be cautious for those considering activating him or using him in DFS immediately.

Colabello Suspension

In light of the 80-game PED suspension for Chris Colabello, one can expect Jesus Montero to have his contract purchased from Triple-A to become Justin Smoak‘s platoon partner at first base.  As I discussed earlier this season, Montero is a player who could do some damage given the opportunity. This could be that opportunity for the former Yankee to finally establish himself as a big-leaguer.