Jerry Dipoto and Mallex Smith: The Odd Couple We Didn’t Know We Needed
Trader Jerry once went to a Trader Joe’s and found an unheralded item called a “Mallex Smith.” He picked it out and tossed it in his basket, but an hour and 17 minutes later he decided he wanted to move on. All Trader Joe’s could give him was store credit. He took it, but as the years went by, he longed for his missing Mallex Smith. Through the help of certain sea-floor dwelling creature, he would get his wish.
I assumed that Jerry Dipoto was messing with fire before looking at the players involved in a trade between the Seattle Mariners and the value-creating, talent-absorbing, and sucker-swindling machine that is the Tampa Bay Rays front office. Last August, ESPN calculated a trade tree to show the protracted value the Rays have subsequently received since initially swapping former No. 1 pick Delmon Young with reserve shortstop Brendan Harris to the Twins for pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett. In all, Young turned into 41.0 WAR as of August 14, 2018, but this tree will add another two branches. Garza was flipped to the Cubs for a young right-hander named Chris Archer in 2011. A handful of up-and-down seasons later, Archer was ultimately swapped for MVP candidate Austin Meadows and Cy Young candidate (before injury) Tyler Glasnow in what may be the worst trade (with hindsight) in quite some time. The Rays have a legacy of value creation out of these multi-prospect trades. Trader Jerry better tread carefully.
For the man who finalized the deal for Edwin Encarnacion in his hospital bed this past offseason, there is no trade he can not or will not make. Is it an adrenaline thing? Is there a secret trading competition among GMs that no one else knows about? Would he make a dangerous deal with the Devil (ray)? Rather daringly, Dipoto sent mercurial catcher Mike Zunino, fourth outfielder Guillermo Heredia, and prospect pitcher Michael Plassmeyer to Tampa for the even more mercurial outfielder Smith and prospect outfielder Jake Fraley. Initially, let’s sort through this trade sans Smith so we can hone in on what makes the speedy center fielder so enigmatic, and ultimately how they form the perfect odd couple.
Zunino was once rushed to the majors just 12 months after the Mariners selected him third overall in the 2012 player entry draft, despite hitting .227 in Triple-A that season. His OPS+ rose up to 125 (MLB avg is 100) before sinking to 84 in the full seasons of 2017-2018, and likely the Rays front office saw some bounce-back potential. After all, Trader Jerry already acquired Omar Narvaez from the Chicago White Sox earlier in the offseason and, considering his OPS is over .800 in mid-June, he’s producing as much as Dipoto could’ve hoped Zunino would have. Zunino recently had a stint on the IL, but his average was south of the Mendoza line through 120 ABs. No Bueno.
Heredia was another bounce-back candidate, and his WAR the last three seasons has danced from 1.2 to -0.1 and back up to 0.6 through only 89 plate appearances. Plassmeyer has an ERA under 3.00 in 28.1 innings in High-A, while Fraley is mashing to a .958 OPS in 54 Double-A contests. Fraley checked in at 14th on the Mariners top prospect list per MLB.com and Plassmeyer didn’t register, but this isn’t exactly a Seattle team anyone should be prepared to call a team of the future. Top prospect Justus Sheffield’s ERA is approaching 6.00 through 11 starts (trader Jerry might want that James Paxton trade back).
In theory, the makeweight here is Smith. Is he an archetypical fourth-outfielder-platoon type in the mold of Craig Gentry, Jarrod Dyson, or even Heredia? Or is Smith the kind of transcendental everyday leadoff hitter that could be everything Billy Hamilton was supposed to be?
Trader Jerry bought a ticket on the Mallex Smith roller coaster and strapped himself into the plushy seat with no choice but to ride his way through the loop-de-loops. Smith, slashing .165/.255/.502 on April 28th, was demoted to Triple-A. He raked at the Mariners’ Tacoma outfit and was brought back up on May 16th, and on May 27th he proceeded to steal his way around the bases. The M’s were up three runs in the eighth inning, and Smith single-handedly created an insurance run for a Mariners bullpen who let’s just say has been in just a tad bit over its head this year.
“I’ve never seen that done, stealing three bases in one inning,” his manager Scott Servais marveled.
But for all the upside Smith can bring on the basepaths (16 steals in 17 attempts—though interestingly in his career before the game he had been caught stealing home in all four attempts), the young outfielder can match these highs with an equal set of damning lows. Sporadic defense (-6 defensive runs saved), poor plate vision (57:17 SO to BB), and bloopers that let AJ Burnett breathe a sigh of relief. This attempt on an Austin Hedges fly-ball might be the worst (or the best, depending on what type of person you are).
To summarize him in a game, take this early June contest against the Houston Astros (this highlight will contextualize the next few paragraphs!). Smith couples a poor reaction time with a horrible route to the ball in the first inning all the while failing to get behind the ball and falls over, meaning the left fielder has to get the ball in. Result? A triple on a play that could have been, at worst, a single. What’s worse? If Smith caught it, the Astros would’ve scored two fewer runs, and the game would’ve headed to extras tied 2-2 (thanks to Wade LeBlanc’s eight scoreless innings of relief, but that’s a tale for another day). Maybe I’m being overly cynical here, but Smith could be doing better here. There seems to be a sort of given floating around parts of industry that good speed automatically correlates to strong play in center field, but Smith throws quite a big wrench right in the heart of that hypothesis. Not everyone is Byron Buxton.
Smith strikes out in the bottom of the inning, looking, on a fastball almost middle-middle. Of course, in his next at-bat, he plants one 15 rows deep into the Safeco (er, T-Mobile) right field seats. But thou who taketh must giveth back, or something like that. In the sixth, Smith again gets a terrible break and allows a blooper to fall in front of him. This time, the right fielder has to come over to make a throw on a ball that appears to be 25 feet behind second base. The Astros tack on another run here on what can only be the most twisted and bizarre kind of karma one could imagine.
Ghost-catcher play nonwithstanding, Smith still has some positives going for him. That Astros game was day three of what is now a nine-game hit-streak, he’s tied for the AL lead in SBs, and does pushups in the dugout after homering (maybe “a few” instead of “some” is the better way to phrase it). You hate to rub salt in an open wound, but sorry Mallex.
Smith, for all the good he can bring to a team, for all of the dramatic and potentially game-winning highs, can just as easily cost you a game. Perhaps it’s effectively a perfect marriage between him and Trader Jerry. Streaky, ambitious, daring, and still willing to try to steal home after being caught the previous four times. Dipoto has had many of his trades blow up in his face. He traded away little-known reserve infielder Chris Taylor for Triple-A starter Zach Lee, swapped young Randal Grichuk for two seasons of mediocre David Freese play, and left the Angels with the consensus lowest-ranked farm system after his tenure as GM in Los Angeles ended.
Yes, he’s had some winners (Dan Haren for Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs), but the most undeniably fantastic one of them all is the fact that Mallex Smith previously was a Mariner for an hour and 17 minutes. Yup. Then he was rerouted. For Drew Smyly. Should be Drew Frowny, who literally never threw a single pitch for the Mariners and forced Trader Jerry to swap their starting catcher to get Smith back. If the Rays created surplus value through Delmon Young, the Mariners surely did whatever one could call the inverse.
Maybe this is a modernistic love story or a reboot of the old show The Odd Couple; there’s something to be said about the way these two men’s careers somehow resemble each other (squint with me on this one). After all, Dipoto made steaks for Smith and 23 of his closest friends in the offseason after the outfielder overheard that Trader Jerry might go to Trader Joe’s for a fine sirloin on occasion.
(Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)