Sunday, February 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Smyly trade was intended to create competition in now-crowded Rays outfield

ST. PETERSBURG —It was unusual and somewhat refreshing to hear Rays GM Erik Neander say during a conference call Wednesday that the team acquired outfielder Mallex Smith to basically shake up the group of outfielders already on the roster.

And, in reading between the lines of Neander's answer to a question concerning Smith's chances of making the Opening Day roster, the Rays may not be finished shaking things up.

"We still have some time to go this winter," Neander said.

Could that mean the Rays are willing to deal from what is now a crowded outfield to obtain help for the bullpen? Another young starting pitcher? Help behind the plate?

As it stands today, the Rays have seven outfielders if you include Colby Rasmus, who is close to finalizing a free agent deal, and Nick Franklin, who is morphing into a super utility infielder/outfielder. The others are Kevin Kiermaier, Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza Jr., Mikie Mahtook and Smith.

Kiermaier, the two-time defending Gold Glove center fielder is not going anywhere.

Putting Smith in left field gives the Rays the same defensive coverage that it had during the days of Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton and more recently, Desmond Jennings and Kiermaier. The Rays can certainly use more defensive coverage in the outfield.

Smith's ability to steal bases adds another dimension to an offense that struggles to generate runs.

But the Rays now have three left fielders in Smith, Rasmus and Dickerson. All three are left-handed hitters.

Rasmus or Dickerson can be used at DH. But both? Doesn't make sense. One could form a right-lefty platoon in right field with Souza. If so, that would likely be Rasmus, who is the better fielder.

Or Souza can join them in a rotation through right field and DH.

Souza missed the last three weeks of the season after having surgery on his left hip because of a labral tear and an impingement. He is expected to be ready by spring training. But he has spent parts of his two seasons in Tampa Bay on the disabled list. That has cut into his production. So has his high strikeout rate. He could be running out of time to prove to the organization that he is a capable major league right fielder.

That makes Rasmus an interesting addition.

Like Smith, he can move to center field when manager Kevin Cash wants to rest Kiermaier. And, like Smith, he is insurance should Kiermaier get hurt. The Rays missed that last season when Kiermaier and then Jennings were on the disabled list.

Rasmus has the potential to be a power bat in the offense.

Injuries cut into his 2016 production when he hit .206 with a .286 on-base percentage and a .355 slugging percentage, 15 home runs and 54 RBI.

That was below his 2015 output when he hit a career-high 25 home runs with 61 RBI and a slash line of .238/.314/.475.

Rasmus hit at least 22 home runs in four of his eight big league seasons.

He also brings above average defense and strong base running skills. Again, two areas the Rays need to improve upon this season.

Smith and Mahtook both have options so both can begin the year at Triple A and allow the Rays to hold on to all the outfielders.

But, Neander said the team traded left-handed starter Drew Smyly to the Mariners on Wednesday for a trio of prospects that includes Smith to increase the competition for playing time along the outfielders.

Competition for roster spots is never bad thing, especially among a team that finished last in the division in 2016 with a 68-94 record.

Adding someone like Smith, who can improve the defense and the base running, gives the Rays a different look.

Letting some, if not all of the holdovers they have to earn their time could be the key to unlocking production, especially in the case of Souza.

It also gives the Rays some flexibility over the coming weeks as they try to improve a team that has finished below .500 during the past three seasons.

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