Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon
news

Mariners News

Mallex 'trying to make a big splash' in '20

With prospects knocking at door, value seen in versatility, defense
@gregjohnsmlb
November 5, 2019

SEATTLE -- When the Mariners acquired Mallex Smith a year ago from the Rays, they envisioned a young speedster who could be their leadoff hitter and play center field as part of their rebuilding plans. A first season of struggle with Seattle and an impending influx of promising outfield prospects

SEATTLE -- When the Mariners acquired Mallex Smith a year ago from the Rays, they envisioned a young speedster who could be their leadoff hitter and play center field as part of their rebuilding plans.

A first season of struggle with Seattle and an impending influx of promising outfield prospects could change that plan, but there remains some intriguing potential in the freewheeling Florida native, and it would be premature to close the book on a 26-year-old who led the Majors with 46 stolen bases despite his disappointing .227/.300/.335 slash line.

“I’m just getting my feet wet here in Seattle,” Smith said before heading home for the offseason. “I made a little splash this year and I’m trying to make a big splash moving forward.”

While Kyle Lewis (Seattle’s No. 10 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline) and Jake Fraley (No. 8) figure to be pushing for roster spots in the outfield this spring, and the team’s No. 1 prospect (and No. 13 overall) Jarred Kelenic likely to be in the picture as well, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto says Smith remains part of the plan with three years of team control remaining.

“Mallex has a lot more ability to impact the game than we saw this year,” Dipoto said. “I don’t know why [he struggled]. He was traded to a new team, [he] is becoming first-time arbitration-eligible, there are a lot of reasons you could conjure up. Even the [right elbow] injury early in the season and missed Spring Training. But a reset is going to do him some good and I really think we'll see a much better version of Mallex in 2020.”

What went right?

After getting off to a bad start both at the plate and in the field and getting sent down to Triple-A Tacoma in late April, Smith worked diligently upon his return in May to regain his confidence and improve his defensive work in center field. By season’s end, he ranked eighth among all MLB outfielders in Outs Above Average, a Statcast metric measuring the number of plays made and degree of difficulty.

“I give him a ton of credit,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He really played solid defense the last three-quarters of the season. It’s been really good. He’s been able to finish plays. Mallex was getting to a lot of balls early [in the season], he just wasn’t finishing the play. Balls would tip off his glove and whatnot.

"And that [turned around] just because of hard work. He didn’t bury his head in his locker and feel sorry for himself. He just said the only way out of this is to work through it. He did a really nice job there.”

Smith also got on a hot streak at the plate in midseason, batting .307/.371/.488 with 24 runs, 15 extra-base hits and 13 stolen bases in a 29-game stretch from May 27 to June 26 that showed both he and the Mariners what he’s capable of when things are clicking for him.

“It’s just been a learning experience,” Smith said. “One, being with a new team and then dealing with some new struggles, getting out of it, getting back in it, getting out of it. Then just continuing to prevail and stay healthy and continue to build, develop, grow. Get tested and figure out why I’m falling short and just continue to bounce back every day. That was a really good thing about the season and the learning that came with the failures.”

What went wrong?

Smith clearly was pressing when he joined the team after its return from the season-opening series in Tokyo. After hitting .296/.367/.406 in his first full season in the Majors for the Rays in 2018, he found himself batting just .165/.255/.247 in his first 27 games with Seattle before being sent to Tacoma to regroup.

And while his defense improved dramatically as the year progressed, Smith’s offense regressed again in September when he batted just .131/.232/.131 in 20 games.

“A little seesaw,” Smith said of his season. “This game is hard and you have to continue to show up every day and put in the work. Just because you put in work, [it] doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get the results, but you still have to be at it and ready to compete. You still have to be open to growth because you’re going to need it in some way, shape or form as you go forward.”

Best moment

Smith swiped a career-high four bases on May 27 in a 6-2 victory over the Rangers, including stealing for the “cycle” in the eighth inning when he walked, then stole second, third and home. He was the first Seattle player to steal home since Dustin Ackley in 2012 and he equaled the Mariners record for most stolen bases in a game.

2020 outlook

There’s no guarantee that Smith will be the everyday center fielder next season. The Mariners will be curious to see what Fraley and Braden Bishop (No. 14 prospect) can do in that spot this spring, while the 20-year-old Kelenic works his way up to the Majors.

But if Smith smooths out his offensive game, he certainly still has the athleticism and ability to find a niche and even to carve out a significant role with the Mariners. It’s worth remembering that at 26, Smith is two years younger than Mitch Haniger, the same age as Bishop and just two years older than Fraley and Lewis.

“One of the great benefits with Mallex is that he can play all three outfield positions,” said Dipoto. “We needed somebody to play right field, he played right. We need him to play left, he can play left. And that may be the role that he winds up filling here now as we are developing a good deal of depth [in the outfield].”

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.