Last week, the Rays made the type of deal that many thought they would make at some point this offseason: they traded one of their many MLB level starters–Drew Smyly. What is more surprising is what they got in return. Mallex Smith is the most recognizable name from the return along with 2 minor leaguers. He also is a speedy OF who provided more with his glove than his bat in his rookie season, but is blocked by Kevin Kiermaier in CF and recently signed Colby Rasmus in LF. So why exactly did the Rays make this deal?
Let me start with this: the 2016 Tampa Bay Rays’ pitching staff had the league’s highest flyball rate in the majors at 38.9%. So a young OF with plus speed and a solid glove would seem to be a great fit for their OF. They seem to be OK as a pitching staff to let the opposing batters hit it to their all-universe and back-to-back Gold Glove-award-winning Kiermaier in CF, where he will play the vast majority of the Rays’ 2017 innings barring injury. It’s also where he posted a 12.3 UZR, which was the 3rd highest in the league for CF’s. And I can’t argue against that. With the signing of Rasmus to presumably play in LF (where he played 672 innings in 2016 and posted a 11.3 UZR, which was highest of all LF’s), that gives the Rays two excellent defenders in their OF to turn all of those fly balls into outs.
However, the reason the Rays were able to acquire Rasmus was because of his offensive struggles in 2016 with the Astros. In 2016, Rasmus had a 75 WRC+ after 3 consecutive seasons over 100. The Rays are clearly hoping for a bounce back offensive season to match the stellar defense he provides and they have little risk as he is only signed for the 2016 season. There are signs that he could very well do that, as he posted a .257 BABIP (compared to a career .294), which seems to point to some bad luck in 2016.
So where does Smith fit into the Rays’ 2017 OF? Honestly, it’s not very clear. He posted a 2.1 UZR in LF for 2016, good for just 32nd in the majors, but did only allow one ball hit his way to land for a hit that was rated as an easy or routine play by Baseball Savant and turned many balls that were rated as highlight or tough plays into outs. He is going to need to play either LF or CF in the majors due to a below average arm, with his speed allowing him to still play CF. Speaking of his 80 grade speed, he swiped 16 bases for the Braves last year and as many as 64 in a minor league season, including 34 in his lone full AAA season, which is not something any of the other OF’s on the Rays roster can provide.
He provided limited offense in 2016, with a slash line of .238/.316/.365 and a 84 WRC+, but did have a strong walk rate, and the more Smith can get on base, the more valuable he is with his speed. Smith has fared better at the plate while in the minor leagues, finishing with batting averages no lower than .281 while in levels between A+ and AAA. So there could be something to be said about giving Smith more at bats to get better accustomed to MLB pitching. The Rays already have two options on their roster for the RF spot in Steven Souza Jr. and Corey Dickerson, who is, however, more likely to spend time in the DH spot than in the OF. Souza posted a 3.7 UZR as a RF in 2016, which was 13th in the league, but also had a -1 arm component. Souza did post a 94 WRC+ in 2016, which is still below average but higher than Smith.
So having said all of that, what are the options? To me, there seem to be three obvious ones. The first would be for Smith to play LF and to ask Rasmus to shift to RF. This would seem to give the Rays the best possible OF defense to support their pitching staff’s high flyball rate. It also gives the Rays some sort of immediate return from the Smyly trade. With a bounce back year from Rasmus at the plate and Smith playing good defense in LF, the Rays could easily have a better OF than in 2016. The risk here is moving Rasmus to RF and seeing his defensive metrics slip while also continuing the struggles he had at bat in 2016.
The second option would be for Smith to play the 4th OF/pinch runner role. This is not ideal, as the best way for Smith to develop into a solid major leaguer is to play every day. However, with Smith’s limited offensive output in 2016, the Rays would get better hitters in their lineup every day in Rasmus, Souza and Dickerson. Having Smith as a late-game defensive option or as a pinch runner would give the Rays an additional weapon for Kevin Cash to deploy as needed.
The final option, and the one that might make the most sense for the 2017 Rays, is for Smith to spend most of the season at AAA and step into the LF spot in 2018 as Rasmus only signed a 1-year deal with the Rays this offseason. This gives Smith the playing time he needs to continue to develop as a hitter and allows Mikie Mahtook to fill the 4th OF spot for the Rays. It also keeps Smith’s major league clock paused at 1 year of service time, which is something the Rays always seems to be ultra aware of.Next post: Counting Down the Days with the Best Baseball Has to Offer, Part I
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