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Season Preview: Mallex Smith

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With road-runner like speed, Smith could add another dimension to the Rays lineup in 2017

MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Meep Meep.

Welcome to the season preview for Mallex Smith, a player whose 80 speed will transform the Rays running game.

How much do the Rays like Smith?

So much that they wouldn’t complete the deal with the Mariners until they acquired Smith from the Braves. That deal cost the Mariners high-end SP prospect Luiz Gohara and 2016 4th rd pick Thomas Burrows, but also brought them RHP RP Shae Simmons. Once happy that Smith was in the deal, the Rays sent Drew Smyly to the M’s for Smith, LHP Ryan Yarbrough, and SS-3B Carlos Vargas.

Mallex Smith: Minor Leagues

Through 5 seasons in the minors since he was drafted by the Padres in the 5th round of the 2012 draft, the Tallahassee Florida native managed an overall line of .296/.382/.389. While his BA and OBP are impressive, it’s that combined with the speed, which resulted in 229 stolen bases in the minors thus far, that no doubt captured the Rays’ interest.

His seasons were successful enough to earn him the Milb.com organization all-star award for two organizations (SD in 2014 and CLE in 2015), and to make the mid-season all-star team on two occasions (2014 MID league, 2015 SOU league).

For those who have forgotten how he got to ATL, he was part of the return for Justin Upton. The Braves never intended to have him play with the Braves so early in the 2016 season, as their starting CF, but an injury to Ender Inciarte pressed him into action.

Still only 22 years old, he was brought in with a ton of pressure and asked to lead off a fairly weak Braves lineup.

Mallex Smith: Majors

Smith was amped and ready to show the world how his road-runner type speed was going to burn up the base paths.

He struck out his first time up (Rays recent acquisition Wilson Ramos actually made the throw to 1B to complete it). But he did single his next time up - off Max Scherzer, which is no small feat - and so was ready to show that speed off against one of the better arms in the majors and Ramos behind the plate. Unfortunately for him, they kept close tabs on him, and fortunately for him he was able to score on a Nick Markakis double.

But Smith would get his chance to show off that speed in the 4th inning after a force ground out had him on 1B. Guess who won out between the fresh and amped rookie and the poised veteran Ramos behind the plate?

Yep, Ramos will surely have a laugh letting Smith know he was the first to throw him out in MLB. And to add insult to injury, Smith’s helmet ended up cutting him.

"My helmet comes off and bounces up and cuts me," Smith said. "What are the odds?"

Thought that was a story worth telling.

Smith has shown he can handle the best pitching in MLB. Not only did he manage his first hit off Scherzer, but he also hit his first HR in MLB off Mets SP Matt Harvey.

However, Smith may have put too much pressure on himself coming into MLB in 2016, and struggled through April as a result. He struck out at an alarming 29.6% rate that month, only hit .188/.278/.292, and only stole 2 bases while CS 4 times. Thankfully for Smith the Braves had few better options and were not exactly expecting to compete in 2016, allowing him the time to improve.

And improve he did.

From May 1st through June 19th (when Mets RP Antonio Bastardo broke his thumb), Smith hit .256/.326/.413 with a .320 wOBA, lowered his SO% to 19.6%, and managed a decent 8.7% BB%. Surprisingly, he also added a .157 ISO with 9 extra-base hits in 137 PA. Unsurprisingly, a more seasoned Smith managed 13 stolen bases and was only caught 2 times, showing better form on the bases. All-in-all for that period, it resulted in a 1.1 wSB rating (8.7 Spd which rivals Billy Hamilton) and a 97 wRC+ rating.

If it weren’t for the broken thumb, there’s a chance that Smith would have continued to improve and made himself a larger piece of the Braves rebuild as a result. Instead, Inciarte got a chance to prove himself at the top of the lineup and the rest is history, as they say.

Defensively speaking, Smith managed a 25.9 UZR/150 when playing LF for the Braves (162.1 innings) and a 3.6 UZR/150 when playing CF (279.2 innings). He only made 1 error and showed above-average range throughout.

I’ll skip over the end-season playing time Smith received since it was essentially a way to get him back into a groove before 2017 - and possibly to market him - but he did show some good base-running instincts, such as this play where he scored on a throw to 1B.

Mallex Smith: Projections

Fans (6) have the highest projections for Smith in 2017 and Zips are slightly lower. Here’s what they both project so far.

Fans (6): .258/.327/.362 with 3 HR, 25 SB, 8.3% BB%, 20.3 SO%, and 91 wRC+

Zips: .231/.296/.322 with 4 HR, 35 SB, 7.8% BB%, 24.4 SO%, and 71 wRC+

It’s possible that they’re within range, but I think most expect more in terms of a combination of the two: the line and BB SO rates from Fans (6) with the SB totals from Zips. That would seem to be closer to expectations, with the possibility that he exceeds the Fans (6) wRC+ should he get enough playing time to get comfortable with the Rays.

Still making league minimum through 2018, he’ll be arbitration eligible for the first time in 2019 and is scheduled to become a free agent in 2022. The controlled costs for such a long period of time indicate that the Rays may be patient with Smith’s progress and he could see some playing time in the minors to sharpen his play.

Final Thoughts

As JT Morgan noted after the Rays acquired him, Smith is bound to start the season in AAA, or at least return there for a couple weeks.

Spending just 20 days in Durham will provide the Rays with a full extra year of control of Mallex Smith, it’s a no brainer. Additionally, despite his having spent 2016 with the Braves, he can probably use the everyday opportunities he will get there if the Rays can’t use him everyday just yet.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to avoid getting excited about the possibilities when it comes to what Smith adds to the Rays, and you can understand why the front office insisted on adding him to the Smyly deal.

Mallex Smith could rival Joey Gathright as the speediest Rays player to ever take the field. Should he be able to build on 2016 and get himself on base enough to make proper use of his speed, he has the legs to steal 40+ bases per season.

While his ISO may never be above-average, Smith’s ability to extend 40+ of his hits into extra bases by stealing bases - and proving to be distracting/annoying when doing so - may prove to be more valuable to the Rays overall.

Above all, Smith provides Kevin Cash a potent tool to use either in LF or off-the-bench and will provide the Rays a chance to win games in a different way than by simply depending on power surges. If he needs to try to get a run in late in games and someone gets on, Smith can be that guy as a pinch runner. And if they need outstanding late-game defensive play in the OF, he can man any of the 3 positions very well.

After the improvements made by adding depth behind the plate and the addition of Jose De Leon, the most significant addition the Rays made in 2017 may very well turn out to be Mallex Smith. While he still needs to work his way into the lineup and earn a role with the team, his tool set gives the Rays more ways to win games.

Wile E. Coyote - a.k.a. Wilson Ramos - is no longer a nemesis now that he’s a Rays C/DH, so keep on running, and welcome to the Rays, Mallex.