Mallex in Mexico: Eventful year continues for young Brave

 

When I texted Mallex Smith last week to see how things were going in the Mexican Winter League, the good-natured Braves outfielder said the league started the week before but he hadn’t shown up yet. He was referring to his 1-for-20 batting line through five games, with one triple, one walk and six strikeouts.

Mallex Smith's rookie season was eventful, beginning with a cut over his nose after a slide in his debut. (AP photo)

Mallex Smith’s rookie season was eventful, beginning with a cut over his nose after a slide in his debut. (AP photo)

In his next two games he went 3-for-8 with a triple and one strikeout. Things were looking up, and Smith’s usual energy and upbeat attitude were evident this time in a reply to a question about what he hoped to get out of the six weeks he’s scheduled to spend in Mexico, where he’s down to play until just before Thanksgiving.

“It’s a well-needed experience,” texted Smith, who was asked by the Braves to play in Mexico to gets at-bats after missing nearly three months of his rookie season with a broken thumb. The league he’s in traditionally features a lot of breaking-ball pitchers, some of them journeymen who’ve had the proverbial cup of coffee (or more) in the major leagues.

“I feel like being in Mexico, seeing these off-speed pitches in this quantity will help me balance out my game and become a complete hitter,” Smith said, “instead of (being so) fastball dominant.”

The 23-year-old Floridian hit .238 with a .316 OBP and .681 OPS in 72 games as a rookie and had 14 extra-base hits (four triples, three home runs) and 16 stolen bases in 215 plate appearances. While that stat line as a whole was not too impressive, it should be noted Smith had begun to thrive before his thumb was broken June 19 when hit by a fastball from Mets lefty Antonio Bastardo.

“I feel like I did OK,” he said of his rookie season. “I’m probably my worst critic, so with that I’ll say I had expectations of myself anyway, it doesn’t matter where I’m at. But I know when I first got up here I had my welcoming bruises. Everybody does at some point. And I bounced back. That in itself was  pretty good. As long as I’m still progressing, I feel like I’m doing pretty well. But overall, my performance — I feel like I haven’t shown everything.”

In his last 42 games before the injury, he hit .272 with a .778 OPS, and he led the Braves with 14 stolen bases and a .349 average with runners in scoring position before going on the disabled list.

Things changed significantly with the Braves and their outfield while he was on the DL: center fielder Ender Inciarte and right fielder Nick Markakis got hot before the All-Star break and were keys to the Braves’ midseason turnaround under then-interim manager Brian Snitker, and the Braves traded for veteran left fielder Matt Kemp, whose power bat helped boost the offense to impressive levels after he joined the team Aug. 2.

When Smith returned in September, after a short rehab stint in Double-A, there were few playing opportunities for him in an outfield that now had three every-day players, all performing well for a team that won 20 of its final 30 games and went 50-47 in its last 97 games.

Snitker was straightforward with Smith when the speedy outfielder rejoined the team, telling him that at-bats would be scarce barring injury, and that he should just be ready whenever called upon. Smith said he understood completely. He appreciated Snitker telling him what was up and also giving him three consecutive starts – one at each outfield position –during the final homestand.

To say Smith was pleased that Snitker was named the Braves’ full-time manager last week would be an understatement. The kid loves playing for the 61-year-old manager.

“He’s awesome,” Smith said in the last week of the season. “Oh my gosh. You just ask me, I’ll tell you all the time: He’s awesome. He has that type of relationship with guys. He’s not pressuring nobody, he’s not overbearing on anybody. He’s kind of honest with you, like, ‘Make it happen or we’re going to probably find somebody else that will.’

“You appreciate his honestly, then you appreciate his relaxed honesty. At this level, things get heightened; you’re on TV, you’ve got all these different cameras measuring every mistake. If you’re right, you’re the hero. If you’re wrong, you’re the donkey. So it’s easy to feel the pressure and just be like, ‘We need to get this done.’ But he’s just relaxed – ‘Hey, this is what we need to get done, so let’s make it happen.’ And that just takes pressure off of everybody else.”

For Smith, there were plenty of highs and some lows during a rookie season that was eventful to say the least. The former minor league stolen-base leader was called up earlier than anyone anticipated after Inciarte was injured in the first week of the season and DL’d for a month.

Arriving sooner than expected, struggling initially, then getting a thumb broken by a fastball just as he was starting to excel and playing on a regular basis. Smith’s overview of all that transpired shows again what the Braves like so much about his mental makeup — his personality and positive attitude.

“It was nothing like I thought it would be, so it was kind of awesome,” he said of his rookie season. “I wanted to be able to compete for rookie of the year, but that didn’t happen. But I faced some adversity early on that maybe next year, I can be able to help a guy in his rookie season. So in that sense, it was awesome. Because I wouldn’t be able to really relate to a young guy going down (getting hurt), when he’s worried about his spot and it’s like, how do I relate and say, everything’s going to be OK? Especially if I’ve never been through it. He’d look at me crazy.”

As things currently stand, Smith figures to enter the 2017 season as a fourth outfielder. Or, if the Braves think it’d be better for his development, they could send him back to Triple-A to start the season.

There’s always a chance they could trade an outfielder. But the Braves would prefer to build around rather than trade Inciarte, and they’re more reluctant now to trade Markakis, a clubhouse leader whose offensive production in 2016 returned to form in his second season after having major neck surgery.

Kemp’s large contract – the Braves owe him $18 million annually over the next three seasons – and impact in the middle of the lineup behind Freddie Freeman make him a seemingly unlikely trade piece, too.

Smith isn’t taking anything for granted and knows that even a bench job on the opening-day roster isn’t guaranteed. He thinks spring training will be important for him.

“I’ve still got to come in and play regardless,” he said. “I don’t care who they’ve got here. Everybody’s going to come and fight for a position. And if I show up thinking I’ve got anything (assured), I’ll be back in Triple-A.”

For now, though, he’s focusing on the Mexican Winter League and said he’s doing everything he can to better himself as a player and teammate.

He said in a text after his first week playing in front of enthusiastic crowds in Mexico, “It’s lively out here, so it helps you get used to fans roaring at you! And I’m working on my Espanol while out here, so hopefully I’m sharper there when I leave. Haha.”

• I’ll close with this classic from The Isley Brothers.

“THAT LADY” by The Isley Brothers

The Isley Brothers

The Isley Brothers

Who’s that lady? Who’s that lady?
Beautiful lady, who’s that lady?
Lovely lady, who’s that lady?
Real fine lady, who’s that lady?Hear me callin’ out to you
‘Cause it’s all that I can do
Your eyes tell me to pursue
But you say look yeah but don’t touch, baby
Nah, nah, nah don’t touchWho’s that lady? Who’s that lady?
Sexy lady, who’s that lady?
Beautiful lady, who’s that lady?
Real fine lady, who’s that lady?I would dance upon a string
Any gift she’d wanna bring
I would give her anything
If she would just do what I say
Come ’round my way baby, shine my wayWho’s that lady? Who’s that lady?
Beautiful lady, who’s that lady?
Lovely lady, who’s that lady?
Real fine lady, who’s that lady?I would love to take her home
But her heart is made of stone
I would keep on keepin’ on
If I don’t she’ll do me wrong
Do me wrong, yeah

 

 


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