In the first significant trade of the offseason, the Rays sent Mallex Smith and outfield prospect Jake Fraley to the Mariners for Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia and minor-league lefty Michael Plassmeyer on Thursday. Smith was a key part of the Rays’ surprising 90-win season, and in finishing as the 15th-ranked outfielder in Roto value (per ESPN’s Player Rater), he was a revelation for fantasy owners as well.
As is the case for many breakout players, Smith’s rise had much to do with playing time. 2018 was his first full season in the majors, and Kevin Cash penciled his name into the starting lineup 127 times. An increased role was not the whole story, as the 25-year-old did improve his skill set in a couple of important ways. Smith became a better contact hitter, which enabled him to reduce his strikeout rate from 22.1 percent over his first two seasons to 18.0 percent in 2018. That, along with a .301 batting average on ground balls, helped Smith to bat a career-high .296 overall.
In tying new teammates Dee Gordon and Jean Segura for third place in the infield hit rankings (with 26), Smith used his speed to drive up his batting average and on-base percentage (from .329 in 2017 to .367 in 2018). In turn, by getting on base more frequently, Smith was able to become only one of three players to steal at least 40 bases this season.
In addition to becoming a better contact hitter, he became better at avoiding soft contact when putting the ball in the air. Between 2016 and 2017, Smith made soft contact on flyballs and line drives at a 16.2 percent rate, but this season, he carved that mark down to 10.1 percent. That was the 29th-lowest rate among the 217 hitters who had at least 150 flyballs and line drives combined. With a 49.7 percent ground ball rate, Smith was by no means a great champion of launch angle, but by minimizing soft contact when he did loft the ball, he was able to hit 27 doubles and 10 triples in 544 plate appearances. Over his previous 497 plate appearances in the majors, Smith tallied just 15 doubles and eight triples.
However, Smith actually got worse as a home run hitter. His hard contact rate on flyballs was 30.5 percent, which was the 40th-lowest rate among the 262 hitters who connected for at least 75 flyballs. After hitting five home runs over his first two seasons, Smith hit only two this year, and he posted a career-low 2.1 percent HR/FB ratio. Still, even with the dearth of home runs, Smith increased his Iso enough that he became a more valuable hitter in points formats. He averaged 0.69 fantasy points per plate appearance in CBS leagues with default settings, as opposed to the 0.60 points per plate appearance he averaged over 2016 and 2017.
Now with a new team and a new manager, fantasy owners are surely wondering if Smith can produce a season with the Mariners that will have a high degree of fidelity to his breakout year with the Rays (and not just because Mallex is an anagram of Maxell). Some of that will depend on his new manager, Scott Servais. Smith’s previous manager, Cash, had not been especially aggressive in giving baserunners the green light to steal prior to this season, but Servais has not shown that tendency either. With Gordon stealing only 30 bases this year and Segura running far less than he did in his one year as a Diamondback, we should consider that Smith may not have as many opportunities to steal as he did in 2018.
It would also help Smith if he were to lead off for the Mariners, just as he had done for the Rays over the bulk of the season’s final two months. Mitch Haniger held those duties after Servais moved Gordon to the bottom of the order in early August, but especially with the departure of Nelson Cruz, it would make sense to install Smith as the leadoff hitter and move Haniger to the heart of the batting order. With the Mariners possibly being active sellers this offseason, it’s hard to know who exactly will be in the starting lineup and what role Smith will play in it.
Until we know more about the Mariners’ 2019 plans, we should put off fine tuning our projections for Smith. What we do know is that, unless Jerry Dipoto flips him like he did two offseasons ago, Smith should see plenty of playing time for the Mariners. We also know Smith has the speed to be a top stolen base target, and he has a strong affinity for using the whole field. Both attributes should help him to hit around .270 or better, even if he experiences some strikeout rate regression. (Smith’s .366 BABIP from 2018 might look far too good to be true, but his xBABIP was a healthy .341, per xStats.)
In the 2 Early Mocks, Smith compiled a 111.2 ADP, though he went between the 75th and 100th pick in four of the nine drafts. That range might be a little too soon for those concerned about him hitting his floor, but the risk in taking Smith in the 100th to 120th pick range is minimal.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.