Mallex Smith was once the Atlanta Braves prized centerfielder of the future. The speedy centerfielder became expendable with the Gold Glove season of Ender Inciarte and the emergence of Ronald Acuna and Ray Patrick Didder in the lower minors. The Braves would send him to Seattle for more pitching — as the Braves have become accustomed to doing — only to see Seattle send him to Tampa for pitching and prospects an hour later.
Smith came to Atlanta at the conclusion of the 2014 season in the Justin Upton trade. He was known for his speed and ability to make contact and tore up Double-A Mississippi in his Braves debut, slashing .340/.418/.413, swiping 23 of 29 stolen base attempts and posting a respectable 41-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He did well in his promotion to Gwinnett, but showed even less pop than he had at the lower levels of ball. He simply isn't going to wow you with over-the-fence power and isn't much of a gap hitter either. In a 126 games over two levels in 2015, he had only 17 doubles, a number one would hope to be a bit higher using his speed to extend balls hit into the gap.
There were also questions about his defense. Despite making dazzling plays in the outfield, some wondered if his route running ability — or lack there of — was hidden by his blazing fast speed. He would improve his defense last season, primarily at the big league level, but saw his offense slip. He slashed a forgettable .238/.316/.365, stealing 16 bases in 24 attempts, striking out 48 times and walking 20.
Smith is only 23 years old, so this move by the Braves shouldn't be seen as the organization giving up on him. He has endless potential with his speed and athleticism, but it was simply the Braves doing Braves things, trading from a position with depth way down the pipeline for more arms. As the adage goes, you can never have too much pitch.
So, along with reliever Shae Simmons, Smith headed to Seattle, where he would have been able to compete for a starting outfield spot, or at the very least, the fourth outfielder role.
Who did the Braves get?
LUIZ GOHARA, LHP
Gohara is the prize of the deal. He's young — just 20 years old — and inexperienced, having not pitched above Low-A. He is also a lefty, joining an exciting corps of young lefties in Kolby Allard, Max Fried, Sean Newcomb, Joey Wentz and Kyle Muller. He also had a sensational 2016, split between Short-Season and Low-A, going 7-2 with a 1.81 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP and striking out 81 batters over 69.2 innings while walking just 23.
The knock on Gohara was his work ethic, but that all changed this season. Signed as a 16-year old by the Mariners, Gohara took some time to put in the work he needed, but now his 6-foot-3 210 pound pitchers frame is filled out athletically. He's shown improved command behind an upper-90s fastball that reportedly hit 100 in the desert this fall and a slider that can strike people out. He has a changeup that he hasn't had to rely much upon, so it is a work in progress, but he certainly has shown he can throw it well enough. Should he improve that and stick to his newfound work ethic, he has incredible upside.
THOMAS BURROWS, RHP
Another lefty, Burrows was selected in the fourth round of last year's MLB Draft out of Alabama. He was highly successful as the team's closer, ending his career with the all-time saves mark. He was a bit fatigued by the time he made his pro debut as many reported that his normal mid-90s fastball was more in the high-80s by season's end. He was much more hittable against righties (.290 batting average against as opposed to .111 against lefties) but a 60-grade slider and a good feel for his changeup seem to suggest he could be an effective bullpen piece. Now 22-years old and having gone through the trials of SEC baseball, Burrows could have a fast climb through the minors should he prove that his September struggles were merely fatigue.
But wait. There's more.
Before Smith could look for an apartment in Seattle, he was traded back to the Southeast. The Mariners traded Smith, shortstop Carlos Vargas and lefty Ryan Yarbrough to the Tampa Bay Rays for Drew Smyly.
So, who did the Rays get in the prospect department?
I admittedly didn't know much about Vargas before this trade, but in researching him, he seems like a very nice piece. We won't know much too soon, as he is merely 17 years old and a long ways off, but his Dominican Summer League performance was certainly news worthy, a campaign that saw him capture MVP honors at the DSL All Star Game.
Vargas has power both at the plate and with his arm in the field. Currently a shortstop with some question marks (he committed 15 errors in just 231 chances) and already 6-foot-3 at 17 years of age, he seems like a primary candidate to have a position change down the road. Still, he can make some nice plays and his arm makes up for some of his miscues.
At the plate, the young righty blasted seven home runs and 11 doubles in 215 DSL at bats this season. He slashed a .242/.344/.391 line but he also posted an impressive 35-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio. I think it's safe to say that he is a big-time pull hitter, as evidenced in this spray chart from MLB Farm.
RYAN YARBROUGH, LHP
Yarbrough is no spring chicken, now 25 years old, and was once one of our own John Sickels sleepers (entering 2015). The monster lefty showed last season that he was no longer sleeping, as he woke up to his biggest season of his career at his highest level of ball.
The six-foot-five southpaw registered a 12-4 record in his Double-A debut, tying him for the Southern League lead in wins. He posted an impressive 2.95 (behind a 3.30 FIP) and 1.11 WHIP on the season.
While he won't blow you away with his stuff, he does have solid command and control of his arsenal. His fastball sits in the low 90s, topping out at 93, but he uses his above average changeup to fool opposing hitters. He struck out just 99 batters in 128.1 innings pitched, but he continued his trend of inducing more ground balls than fly balls and getting out of the few jams he was in (posting a 1.24 ground out to air out rate). His curve — described by some as a slurve — is ok and could still get the job done.
The 2014 fourth rounder saw a quick rise in the Mariners system and heads to a Rays organization that has shown patience the last few seasons with their young arms. They also have shown the ability to groom young pitchers into weapons. It will be interesting to see if the 2016 Southern League Most Outstanding Pitcher gets another go in Double-A with Montgomery or if they start him in Durham continuing his fast progression to the big leagues. Expect him to continue starting in the minors with a possible shift to a swingman role in the bigs.