On Monday, I wrote about how the Mariners were moving towards the model used by the Kanas City Royals the last few years, putting a heavy emphasis on outfield defense to help prop up a mediocre rotation. GM Jerry Dipoto added Jarrod Dyson to Leonys Martin and Mitch Haniger, giving the team a starting outfield of three guys capable of playing center field, plus a couple of reserves who have some defensive abilities. So, it was pretty weird when the team announced that they’d traded one of their best prospects, lefty Luiz Gohara, to Atlanta for center fielder Mallex Smith and reliever Shae Simmons.
Smith, like Martin and Dyson, is a speed-and-defense center fielder who has some real offensive question marks. As a low-power guy who ran a 73% contact rate in the majors last year, it’s tough to see him ever developing into more than just a below average hitter who tries to make up for his offensive weakness with stolen bases and diving catches in the outfield. It’s the Billy Hamilton profile, just with a 10 percentage point reduction in contact rate and normal earth-person speed, instead of whatever Hamilton got his ability to run from from.
On a team without a real center fielder, Smith would probably be a useful piece, a flycatcher who could hit at the bottom of the order and hold down his spot while making the league minimum. On the Mariners, though, he made little sense, because he’s not good enough to supplant any of the team’s three starters, and because the team’s starters are already good defenders, there isn’t much room for a late-game defensive replacement. So why would Dipoto trade one of the team’s best young arms for another copy of what he already has? Well, there’s this.
Jerry Dipoto isn't done yet. He's working on another deal that could include Mallex Smith, the OF he just acquired from the #Braves.
— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) January 11, 2017
So, apparently, like Friday’s series of trades that went together, the Mariners made a move that allows them to make another move. Speculatively, Cleveland could certainly use a guy like Smith, allowing them to push Tyler Naquin back to a corner outfield spot, or perhaps the Tigers would like Smith as an alternative to Anthony Gose, even though Gose is a warning about getting too excited about speed-and-defense prospects who can’t make contact. There are teams out there who Smith makes sense for; Seattle just isn’t one of them.
Right now, turning a left-handed pitching prospect with premium velocity into a 4th OF and a reliever doesn’t look like a great idea, but we’ll apparently have to wait and see what Smith fetches in this apparent second deal.
If you’re the Braves, though, you have to be pretty thrilled about this. Even if Simmons might have some real value as a potential high-end reliever, turning him and a guy blocked by Ender Inciarte into another high-upside pitching prospect is a pretty nifty move. While we don’t know exactly what the Mariners are doing, it seems pretty clear that the Braves saw a chance to turn a couple of spare parts into a potential core piece, and jumped on it when they could.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.