“There are some who love him, some who aren’t super impressed. I’m part of the latter group. I acknowledge he’s a decent enough prospect and might be a better player than I right now feel he’s capable of.”
|Stacy Revere | Getty Images Sport|
I later came around on him a little to rank him 11th in my preseason Top 30 Prospects, but again, I stressed that I wasn’t sold on Smith because, “will he hit enough?” He fell to #12 once the Matt Wisler trade was announced shortly before the season began.
By midseason, I had pushed Mallex into the Top 10 at #9, jumping past Tyrell Jenkins and Braxton Davidson in the process. I kept his grade at a B-, but added that I nearly graded him a B. The more this season progresses, the more I realize I probably should have. Suddenly, I had opened my eyes to the guy the Braves knew they had acquired. A player who made Jose Peraza‘s leadoff ability look below-average. A guy who had the speed to prompt bloggers to ponder if the Braves had the next Billy Hamilton. The Braves had acquired the guy who – hopefully – will be their long-term option in center field.
Smith was born in Tallahassee, Florida on May 6, 1993. The Braves were in Denver that day, playing their first-ever game against the expansion Rockies. John Smoltz was staked to a 5-2 lead against former Braves prospect David Nied before the Braves manhandled the Rockies bullpen to turn the game into a 13-3 route and even their record at 15-15. Both David Justice and Ron Gant homered and drove in 4. The Braves would never be .500 again that season.
Immediately a prospect who excelled at baseball, Smith graduated from Rickards High School in 2011. The school has never produced a major leaguer, though football players such as Corey Fuller and William Gay are some of the alumni. So is T-Pain. I assume that’s a somebody.
The Milwaukee Brewers came calling after making Smith a 13th round selection, but Mallex wasn’t won over by Bernie Brewer playing on a slide. He spurned an offer from Florida State to attend Santa Fe Community College. The biggest reason was simple. Mallex wanted to be eligible to be drafted again the following year and had he attended a four-year school, he wouldn’t have. The gamble paid off as Smith showed his skill set and the Padres selected Smith in the 5th round with the 165th overall pick. He signed for $255K.
Once the 19 year-old signed, he headed to the Padres’ Arizona Summer League, which was age appropriate for him. He hit an impressive .344 over two months of action before a brief move to Short-Season A ball with a bunch of college draftees and veterans of previous minor league seasons. He didn’t get many hits over the ten-game run, but did walk a good deal. On the season, he slashed .305/.366/.383 with a pair of homers, 17 steals, and eleven walks in 35 games. All in all, it was an impressive first season. The following year with Fort Wayne, Rome’s equivalent in the Padres system, we saw some good things from Smith (11.6% walk rate, 64 steals) and some underwhelming things (.262 average, .078 ISO). The former was probably a result of a .318 BABIP.
In 2014, Smith would break out in a big way. Referred to as minor league’s fastest baserunner, Smith spent the first two months of the season back in Fort Wayne before being promoted to Lake Elsinore in the California League, San Diego’s top A-league team. His numbers only improved, though it’s worth adding that the California League is a hitter’s league so Smith’s numbers would be expected to improve. He finished the final stretch of the season with his only five homers of the year, which nearly matched what he had done in the previous 210 games before joining the Storm. He also swiped 40 bases with the aid of a .414 OBP. Add that with his Fort Wayne numbers and Smith finished the year with a healthy .310/.403/.432 slash, a minor league high 88 steals, and 69 walks to go with 103 K’s. It was a big, big year that earned Smith some considerably recognition. The Padres rewarded Smith with a trip to the Arizona Fall League and he excelled there as well. He reached base at a .408 clip. Baseball America crowned him the #16 prospect in what was a stout Padres system and he was rated the Fastest Baserunner in the in the Midwest League.
Smith was probably being looked at as the center fielder of the future who would be the guy to take over from players like Will Venable and, ironically enough, Cameron Maybin. That came to a close in December when the trade was announced. With only Melvin Upton Jr. in the way, Mallex’s road to the majors was significantly shortened. A later deal to exchange Melvin for Maybin didn’t seem like it would change that, though Maybin showed what he could accomplish if he was able to stay healthy for once.
Once 2015 opened, he crushed Southern League pitchers to the tune of .340/.418/.413, notably reaching in all but seven of the 56 games he received a plate appearance in. He added 23 steals and earned a promotion to Gwinnett in late June. He struggled to get going, but once he adjusted, the results have been on the level we have grown to accept from Smith since he became a professional. In 27 games since July 17, Smith has slashed .313/.363/.383 with 18 steals in 21 attempts.
As for the book on Smith, it starts with the speed factor. When you have an even 200 bases since the beginning of 2013, it should perk up your interest in quick fashion. Some have graded Smith’s speed as an 80. That’s out of a scouting scale that runs 20 to 80. It’s ultra elite for anyone to ever reach 80, but Smith’s speed is deserving of it. The other thing that stands out is that, unlike Peraza who was ultimately dealt, Smith knows how to take a walk. It has led him to a .379 career OBP on the heels of a .294 batting average and 10.7 BB%. That is the kind of production that you get excited about from the leadoff spot even without factoring in the speed. His pop won’t impress, though it’s better against right-handed pitchers historically than same-hand guys. With that in mind, he’s never struggled to hit lefties. Outside of a run with Lake Elsinore, his ISO has remained below .100. So, the chances of Smith reaching an .800 OPS is minimal at best. Defensively, I’ve never seen any glowing reports about his abilities. The speed is clearly there, but he needs to refine things and a spring training apprenticing under Michael Bourn might help turn that into a reality.
There is a lot to be excited about when it comes to Smith. The speed stands out the most, but his overall game profiles as not just a fast leadoff hitter, but a good one. He’s still rough around the edges and needs to improve his stolen base percentage along with better results in center field, but considering he just turned 22 last May, that imperfect status is what you expect out of a player. He might not get a chance to show his skills in major league games until next summer to refine his game and extend arbitration out a year, but once it does happen, he could be the star we once dreamed Rafael Furcal would become in the leadoff spot.
For an extended six minute look at Smith…with shaky cam footage worthy of a J.J. Abrams movie at times, see this video.