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Why the Rays' Mallex Smith is headed to the minors

 
Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Mallex Smith (0) makes notes on his at-bats in the dugout during the game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.
Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Mallex Smith (0) makes notes on his at-bats in the dugout during the game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.
Published April 12, 2017

NEW YORK — Speedy Mallex Smith has thus far shown the Rays everything they could have hoped to see, covering extensive turf in the outfield, bunting and battling his way on base and wreaking all kinds of havoc when he gets there.

But by this time next week, expect to see him in the minors.

The Rays don't really have any other choice.

Smith has made this decision an interesting topic of conversation, including inside the clubhouse, with his impressive early season play. Acquired in the January trade of Drew Smyly, the 23-year-old has been one of the key contributors and catalysts to the Rays' surprising 5-3 start, earning praise from teammates, coaches and front office execs.

"The disruption that he causes when he does get on base is what sticks out to me," centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "I've really enjoyed playing next to him for the first week. Hopefully we'll see a bunch of him running around all over all season."

Outfield/baserunning coach Rocco Baldelli raves about how Smith "changes the game." Manager Kevin Cash compares his impact to what Carl Crawford and B.J. (as he was called then) Upton did for the heyday Rays. Starter Chris Archer praises — and pushes the hashtag possibilities of — #TheMallexEffect.

"The person, the energy, the type of game he plays, the prep work, everything — we got with Mallex exactly what we were expecting to get, which doesn't always happen," general manager Erik Neander said. "We're thrilled by that."

But …

They're just not going to have any room for Smith when Colby Rasmus comes off the disabled list, which looks to be early next week.

The Rays signed Rasmus, and paid him — by their standards — a hefty amount, $5 million, second most on the $69.5 million team, plus $2 million in incentives, to be a key player. They're expecting the top-shelf defense and 20-homer power and overall production he has shown throughout his career, especially being reunited with former Toronto hitting coach Chad Mottola.

So once he gets back on the field this week and completes a short rehab stint to show he's free of restraints from offseason hip and core muscle surgeries, Rasmus, 30, will take Smith's spot in the lineup as the lefty-swinging leftfielder, and if-needed backup in center. Rasmus also may DH some, giving Corey Dickerson some time in left, where he looked during the spring to be better.

They're not going to keep Smith over Peter Bourjos, whom they targeted during the winter then traded for in late spring to have a right-handed batter to play the outfield against lefty starters, of which they eventually will face plenty. (Smith's albeit limited career numbers vs. lefties, an .078 average and .293 OPS, answer your next question.)

Think of Bourjos in the Brandon Guyer role, without all the hit-by-pitch bruises but much better defense, one who also can fill in in center should Kiermiaer get a day off against a tough lefty. Plus, it's not as simple as sending Bourjos to the minors anyway, as they'd have to risk getting him through waivers (though he has agreed to go if they did).

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And there's no room on the rest of the bench, as the Rays have Rickie Weeks to split time with Logan Morrison at first, Daniel Robertson to fill in around the infield and catcher Jesus Sucre. Even if they had a way to keep Smith once Rasmus returned, it wouldn't make sense to play him — at least to this point — over Steven Souza Jr.

It needs to be pointed out there is some financial benefit for the Rays in sending down Smith, as with all young players. A few weeks in the minors gives them an additional year of control, delaying his free agency until 2023. A couple of months in Durham could knock him off the path for the additional Super 2 year of arbitration eligibility and save millions.

But in this case, it seems to be more a matter of sense than dollars.

With current management posting two losing seasons, it's fair to question their decision-making. But it's also not logical to suggest they abandon the plan they came into the season with based on Smith's six mostly good games.

What are they going to do? Dump Rasmus before he ever plays? Expose themselves further to lefty pitchers by ditching Bourjos? Go without a backup infielder, or one less reliever?

If the Rays' biggest miscalculation to this point was not counting on Smith — whom they had been trying to get directly from the Braves before he was dealt to the Mariners — having this much impact, that's not so terrible.

"What Mallex has done really excites us not just today but for the foreseeable future," Neander said. "He should be a critical part of our success over the next many years."

Injuries have a way of changing things, as will shortstop Matt Duffy's eventual return. So can inconsistent play — over a longer period — by Rasmus, or Bourjos, or Souza. Trades can emerge.

This isn't a permanent decision.

Smith, personable and charismatic as well, isn't basking in what he has done, the 4-for-19 at the plate (.211) offsetting the hustle on the field and basepaths (3-for-3 in steals) in Mallex-facturing runs. "A good first week," he said. "But there's a lot of things I could do better."

He's determined to prove he is more than just fast, that "being talked about as a one-dimensional guy kinda irks me." And he is sharp enough to know there isn't much he can do to extend his stay but keep playing hard and see what happens.

It is going to seem wrong when the Rays send him down. But it's going to be the right move.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.