The Suddenly Crowded Tampa Bay Outfield

We know a few things for certain regarding Mallex Smith, who was acquired by Tampa Bay along with two prospects for left-handed starter Drew Smyly on Wednesday.

For starters, he’s fast.

And that speed allows him to cover considerable ground, and overcome less than perfectly efficient routes, in the outfield …

He has 80-grade speed, according a number of evaluators, and stole bases at a 79.2% rate over five minor-league seasons.

We know he’s been traded three times already in his young career, having been dealt from San Diego to Atlanta prior to the 2015 season, and traded twice in one day Wednesday. He was first part of a deal that sent him from Atlanta to Seattle before getting shipped to the Rays.

We know he appears to be a capable defender. Smith recorded five Defensive Runs Saved in 279 innings in center field last year with Atlanta, a 25-run pace for a full season. He added 2 DRS in 162 innings in left.

If you prefer visuals, these Baseball Savant charts show us Smith intercepted most batted balls he should have last season, and made a few highlight-worthy plays, too:



Thanks to Guy Curtright of we even know how he was given his unique first name.

From Cutright’s piece:

“Everyone in my family has a first name starting with ‘M’,” Smith said. “But there was a smart kid in our apartments named Alex. My mom liked his name. So I became Mallex. I’m Alex with an ‘M’.”

So we know a lot about Mallex Smith. What we don’t know is if he’s going to hit.

While he reached base at a .382 clip in the minors, he posted a .339 on-base mark in Triple-A in 2015 and has a .316 mark in his brief major-league experience. He’s never going to hit for power. Steamer projects a .256/.319/.357 slash line for Smith this season. Baseball America called his bat a “big question mark” in their analysis of yesterday’s trades.

Of course, Michael Bourn has a career .266/.329/.357 slash line and once posted a 6.2-win season thanks to his speed and defense. Bourn also has $63 million in career earnings.

What else we don’t know is how Smith will fit into a suddenly crowded Tampa Bay outfield. It’s not immediately clear why the Rays traded one of their more attractive chips for a player they don’t need — or, at least don’t need immediately. Is Smith part of the long-term plan in Tampa, or is he viewed there as chip, a surplus, that could be dealt for a future need?

Smyly (2.3 WAR) projected to be the Rays’ second-most valuable pitcher after Chris Archer, though the Rasy have other quality starting pitching options in Jake Odorizzi, Blake Snell, Alex Cobb and Matt Andriese.

I think we can all agree Kevin Kiermaier has center field covered. A week ago, Smith might have fit in left field, where he could have given the Rays two center fielder-caliber defenders to cover ground in the outfield, but then the Rays made an interesting bet on Colby Rasmus, who appears to be headed for left field. In right field, the Rays have Corey Dickerson and Steven Souza Jr.. Smith has neither the typical power nor arm for right.

According to the FanGraphs depth chart for the Rays, Smith appears to be blocked all across the outfield.

Tampa Bay general manager Erik Neander explained to the Tampa Bay Times why he liked Smith enough to headline a package for Smyly.

“Looking at Mallex, this is a guy who is a very capable base-stealer that’s an impact athlete,” Neander said. “The speed and the game he plays, he’s very dynamic. It adds value on both sides of the ball.

Neander also addressed the outfield surplus:

“I think to diversify the group, add competition and to do it with someone who’s young and still on the way up is something that excites us.”

Maybe the trade is simply about adding value and controllable years, regardless of position. It certainly doesn’t appear to be a deal that will improve the 2017 Rays. Then again, the 2016 Rays won 68 games. The Red Sox have strengthened an already impressive roster, the Blue Jays and Orioles were playoff teams a year ago, and the Yankees should also be competitive. The Rays should be making deals with the future in mind, collecting as many controllable assets as possible.

But it also doesn’t appear like the Rays received an overwhelming package in return for a quality arm in an offseason when the free-agent market is largely bereft of decent-to-good pitching.

Maybe this trade was made with another deal in mind. Or maybe the Rays look at Smith as a long-term option in left field. Maybe they plan to place a great emphasis on outfield defense. The Rays’ system appears to lack an MLB-ready impact outfielder. We’ll have more answers, eventually.

In the near term, Smith has option years remaining and perhaps the most likely scenario is he begins the season at Triple-A, where he can get everyday reps and where his service clock won’t be ticking for the moment.

Neander was non-committal when asked if Smith opens with the major-league team: “I think as we sit here today we still have some time to go this winter, but he does have major-league experience, and it’s a skill set that diversifies our group a little bit.”

As for the rest of the deal, Eric Longenhagen said infielder Carlos Vargas, just 17, possessed “sneaky value” via Twitter. Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper said Vargas ranked 26th in BA’s soon-to-released Seattle prospect rankings and left-handed pitcher, Ryan Yarbrough, ranked 12th.

A trade of Smyly seemed inevitable. Now the return can be debated, along with where the pieces fit.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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7 years ago

Vin Scully relayed that “Mallex” anecdote during the first game of the Braves series in LA last June. I think Mallex was off to a hot start with a nice catch to end the first followed by quickness on the bases. You could tell Vin enjoyed watching a speedster like that.