Allow me to take you back in time: deep in an off-season mired in controversy and questions, in the darkest winter’s months, newly-acquired outfielder Mallex Smith burst in like a big ball of Florida sunshine:
An injection of personality into the outfield alongside famously stoic Mitch Haniger? A complement to Dee Gordon’s infectious smile? A legitimate speed threat on the bases? A 3-plus win player in 2018? Sign us up.
Unfortunately the Mallex Smith honeymoon period was bright but brief, as an elbow injury (Smith claimed he was trying to develop an 80-grade arm overnight) cost him basically all of Spring Training. After an anemic April during which Smith posted an OPS of .502 and made some notably poor plays in the outfield, he was sent for a head-rightening stint at Triple-A Tacoma and returned in late May to improved numbers. Smith’s best month as a Mariner was June, when he put up a wRC+ of 109 and lowered his strikeout rate to about 20% in addition to showing flashes of power, with 10 doubles—over half of what he’d accrue all season—and three homers, again half of his season-long output. Smith couldn’t sustain that production over the back half of the season, though, and ended with a loss of about seventy points off each part of his 2018 slash line. In a season where others reaped the benefits of the juiced ball, Smith’s power numbers flatlined, and he ended with a career-low -0.1 WAR (0.0 fWAR).
Not all was darkness and despair for Mallex this year, as he led all of baseball with 46 stolen bases while being caught just 9 times, meaning he was successful about 84% of the time. It’s been well-documented that stolen base attempts are on the decline in baseball as teams shift more towards a “three true outcomes” model and make more analytically-based decisions about the running game, but elite base-stealing ability like Smith’s exists outside of current trends. If Mallex Smith is standing on first base, it likely won’t be long until he’s standing at second, and the odds are against a battery being able to stop him. It’s a skill set that might have helped a playoff team, but either no one came knocking for Mallex at the trade deadline or the Mariners, despite a deep well of outfielders in the farm system, decided to hold on to the controllable Smith, who will enter his first year of arbitration this off-season (and will likely, due to his poor 2019 season, not cost the team very much).
That doesn’t guarantee Smith a place moving forward, even at age 26, when his prime years could overlap with a theoretical opening of the Mariners’ window of contention. Jake Fraley and Kyle Lewis will both press for playing time out of Triple-A Tacoma this year, and while neither match Mallex’s speed-demon ways on the basepaths, Fraley has the defensive chops to challenge for his job in center field, as does Braden Bishop. Looking further down the line, outfielders and prized prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez, among others, will also be knocking at the door in Seattle’s outfield relatively soon. With the exception of Kelenic and Rodríguez, and perhaps Haniger, any other outfielder in Seattle’s overloaded system is likely fair game for trades. It’s possible Dipoto will sell low on Mallex, but with another non-competitive season looming ahead, he’s also in a position to hold Smith to see if he can rebuild some trade value. With it starting to look like Smith’s 2018 was the outlier, however—Smith’s hard-hit rate in 2019 regressed to his 2017 levels, falling off over 5% from 2018—and a relatively minimal investment in the player (at this point Michael Plassmeyer, with a sub-3 FIP in High A in 2019, had the most successful season of all players involved in that trade), expect Smith’s name to come up frequently in trade rumors as the Hot Stove season gets going. Here’s hoping he didn’t sign too long of a lease on that apartment.