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Daniel Robertson and Mallex Smith are stepping into the spotlight

10% of the season is gone, and the bench players have emerged as the most valuable Rays in 2018. What will they do with more playing time?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

To say that the 2018 season has started poorly for the Rays might be just a bit of an understatement. For many Rays fans, this year has become a matter of seeing the new, hot prospects make their debut.

Does that describe you? Are you waiting with bated breath from that MLB alert to pop up on your phone saying that the Rays are bringing up Insert New Face Here? That under 25 years old young talent with upside you can dream on?

We’ve got good news for you: two of those guys are already here and off to a hot start. The first is the roller coaster ride called the Mallex Effect, but the other has been the steady utility play of Daniel Robertson.

Mallex is more than a necklace

Even before Kevin Kiermaier was sidelined for thirteen weeks with his annual injury, Mallex Smith was already one of the most exciting guys on the field. Yes, the sample size is small, but let’s have a look at what Smith was doing compared to Gold Glove winner Kiermaier.

Kevin Kiermaier, through the first 16 games of the season, appeared in 12, had 48 plate appearances, seven hit, no home runs, only one RBI, and an anemic .163/.250/.486 slash line, having struggled mightily to bust a slump as the cold season started. Of course there were plenty of flashes of defensive brilliance, because that’s where Kiermaier is as his best, and ultimately where he’ll be most missed during his injury rehabilitation.

Mallex Smith, who was serviceable as a fourth outfielder and Kiermaier replacement last season, has had the hottest start of any of the Rays this year. He also has no home runs, but hey, it’s early.

What does he offer? How about five stolen bases? Two triples? Three RBI?

In almost identical appearances to Kiermaier, 14 games and 49 plate appearances, Smith has racked up a gobsmacking .409/.458/1.004 slash line, and a team best 188 wRC+.

No, those numbers are not sustainable, but they are an impressive sign that Smith is in a rhythm and the Rays have got a lucky charm ready to take the field in Kiermaier’s stead. His walk rates are consistent with last season, but his strikeouts are down considerably, from 22% in 2017 to 10.2% at current.

While it’s much too soon in to make any assessments of what he’s doing differently, thusfar he’s seeing a considerable increase in his hard hit balls, from 21.3% in 2017 to 30% this season. If he can maintain a hot streak it will be worth further investigating to see how his swing may have evolved.

Smith, as we said, is no replacement defensively for Kiermaier, but with an above average DRS in the last two seasons (+7 in 2016 and +5 in 2017) he’s certainly not going to be a liability in the outfield.

The Florida native has also been spotted with some impressive hometown bling this season that has made him something of a third mascot for the team. (Spoiler alert for this tweet:)

— Ashley MacLennan

DRob demands your attention

Daniel Robertson got his first look in the majors last year, making the big league club out of Spring Training. His first year with the Rays was a mixed bag. He showed some nice glove, and his flexibility to play all over the field made him an immediately useful bench player. However his bat, which had played well throughout his minor league career, lagged behind.

Well, that bat isn’t lagging anymore.

The 24 year old DRob currently leads the Rays with a whopping .472 OBP, and ranks 2nd on the Rays with a 168 wRC+ and .410 wOBA. What jumps out immediately, whether in person, on TV, or on the spreadsheets: patience. Robertson has been incredibly patient at the plate, and his eye has helped him just spit on anything out of the zone. Robertson currently sports a Bonds-ian 27.8(!) BB%.

Being patient and selective is nothing new for Robertson, as throughout the minors he’s consistently put up 9-11% BB%. DRob has also had a Brandon Guyer-esc ability to be a HBP magnet, with 57 HBP in his total career. While his current walk rate may not be sustainable, DRob is a patient hitter, who should make pitcher’s constantly working (and annoyed).

Perhaps Daniel Robertson’s best attribute, and reason he could be a mainstay for the Rays as their window just starts to open, is his flexibility. So far he has played every position on the field except CF, RF, and C. His perfect 1 IP on the mound has him ranked 5th on the team in FIP. But while he can be a Swiss Army Knife as a player, his glove plays best throughout the infield.

After Matt Duffy pulled up short and had to leave the April 16th game against the Texas Rangers with a tight hamstring, DRob got the call at the hot corner. Immediately he showed off some slick glove work.

Robertson currently ranks 3rd on the Rays with a 0.8 Fangraphs DEF rating, and places 3 times in the top 7 on the team by UZR/150 (2nd 2B, 3rd 1B, and 7th 3B). DRob also ranks 8th in all baseball as a 2B by UZR/150 (just a head of former Ray Logan Forsythe).

Thanks to his bat and glove, Daniel Robertson is leading the Rays with 0.5 fWAR already, as a utility player.

It’s easy to want to see what we have with these exciting young talents in the minor leagues, but once they make it to the majors, it’s easy to lose that shine quickly if they don’t hit the ground running. Perhaps that happened with Robertson after a so-so rookie year in 2017. What we have seen so far is the importance of patience.

DRob turned 24 years old less than a month ago, and has a lot of baseball ahead of him. Judging by the way Robertson goes about his business, he certainly understands the importance of patience.

— Darby Robinson