As you’ve probably heard by now, yesterday the Rays finalized a five-player trade sending outfielders Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for catcher Mike Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia, and left-handed pitcher Michael Plassmeyer.
Overall, the response in Rays land has been rather positive. Catcher was the number one position of need for the team this offseason, and this trade does an excellent job addressing that need. Count me among the (slight) skeptics, however. And that’s because of the man the Rays gave up.
Mallex Smith (or MIS, Mallex International Speedway as I am fond of calling him) is fresh off one of better, and certainly most fulfilling, seasons in recent Rays history. Coming into the season, the overall vibe with MIS was that he was going to be a fourth outfielder at best, and a very likely candidate to be sent down to Durham if any of the kids got called up. He was fresh off a season with Tampa Bay in which he played 81 games and had a wRC+ of 88.
However, Smith got things going early, posting a particularly strong week in mid-April when he slashed .536/.567/.750 to inflate his early batting line to a point that is was going to be hard for Kevin Cash to keep him out of the lineup.
And so Cash kept him in the lineup, and Mallex kept producing. Late May and early June were a bit of a slog for Smith, and his detractors likely pointed to the inflated BABIP from early in the season and said this was regression rearing its ugly head. However, Mr. Mallex and His Incredible Notebook weren’t going to settle for that answer.
Instead, MIS was posting a monster of a July and August, slashing .383/.458/.586 over the two months, with nearly as many walks as strikeouts, as his plate discipline increased all year. And that’s the thing the scared me most about moving Smith.
It’s hard to think of a Rays player who seemingly improved more in front of our very eyes than Mallex, and it didn’t seem like a fluke. There’s the fact that he is among the most studious players in the game. There’s the fact that his skills seem to be only just approaching the natural speed he has to his game. There’s the fact that he’s still only 25 years old, and that he has said football was his number one sport much of growing up. And there was the fact he had an effect on every game he played.
The Mallex Effect was real.
There are certainly some red flags on his FanGraphs page: the .449 BABIP against lefties last season and his .347 batting average at home stand out the most, but it seems like his floor is a 3.0-win player. His plate discipline, speed, and batted ball profile (22.6 career line drive rate) all speak to a solid hitter, and every one of those traits is trending in the right direction.
They say sell high, but what if Smith hasn’t yet reached his truest heights? Only time will tell if the Rays made the right move, but I’m with Tommy Pham. Mallex will be missed:
Hopefully his Florida chain can still be put to good use out there in the Pacific Northwest.
Mike Zunino said "I’ve heard nothing but great things (about the #Rays). Denard (Span) was very high on them and how they run their organization."— Neil Solondz (@neilsolondz) November 8, 2018
New #Rays catcher Mike Zunino on getting to work with a TB staff that is used in different ways: “I think the success they had doing that speaks volume of how innovative they are. I’m extremely excited to get to know their staff and to develop relationships with those pitchers"— Juan Toribio (@juanctoribio) November 8, 2018
New #Rays catcher Mike Zunino feels his struggles offensively last year were due in part to an oblique injury at the start of the season, but feels he's healthy now and will get back to 2017 success offensively.— Neil Solondz (@neilsolondz) November 8, 2018
#Rays Neander said Brandon Lowe should be included in group of outfielders in the 2019 mix with Pham, Kiermaier, Meadows and Heredia— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) November 8, 2018