Players change organizations all the time. Some struggle in new surroundings, taking time to adjust and translate prior success to new uniforms. The 2015 season was the furthest thing from a struggle for outfielder Mallex Smith, who shined in his first year in the Braves system. He earned his second straight All-Star selection, this time at Double-A Mississippi, reached Triple-A for the first time and was recognized as the Atlanta Braves’ Hark Aaron Minor League Player of the Year. How’s that for a system debut?
Smith got off to a fast start by hitting .322 in April at Mississippi, but his next two months were even better. He was the M-Braves’ Player of the Month in both May and June, batting a combined .347 (51-for-147) with 23 runs scored and 17 stolen bases. Smith earned a trip to the Southern League All-Star Game on June 23, where he started in center field and batted leadoff, going 1-for-3.
At the Southern League’s All-Star break, Smith ranked second in the circuit in on-base percentage (.418) and tied for second in steals (23). Those impressive numbers earned him a promotion to Gwinnett for the second half of the season.
Despite seeing a drop-off of about sixty points in his batting average (.340 with Mississippi, .281 with Gwinnett) over the season’s final three months, Smith continued to be a weapon on the basepaths, stealing 34 bases in 41 tries (82.9 percent) as a G-Brave. In only 69 games in the International League, his 34 steals ranked third in the league, and his six triples ranked tied for seventh.
Smith was the IL’s Player of the Month in August, when he batted .336 with league highs in hits (41), triples (3), runs (24) and steals (13). Following the season, he earned the Braves’ organization’s top minor league honor for a position player, and along with teammate Tyrell Jenkins – the Braves’ 2015 Minor League Pitcher of the Year – showed that offseason trades can pay immediate dividends, even in the minors.
Across both levels in 2015, Smith led all Braves’ farmhands and ranked fifth in minor league baseball with 57 stolen bases (57-for-70). As impressive of a year as that is, it wasn’t even the highest single-season total in his career.
While playing for Class-A Fort Wayne and Advanced-A Lake Elsinore in San Diego’s system in 2014, Smith swiped a minor-league best 88 bases (88-for-114, 77.2 percent). He has 226 steals in 285 tries (79.2 percent) in his four-year professional career.
If Smith can continue to prove he’s as capable with his bat as he is with his legs, he could provide Atlanta with its first true leadoff hitter and base-stealing threat since Michael Bourn was at the top of his game in 2012. It was in that year when Bourn stole 42 bases and led off for the Braves 151 times, helping lead Atlanta to a Wild Card berth while playing solid defense.
With the recent signing of Jeff Francoeur, the Atlanta outfield picture has become more crowded. Ender Inciarte – acquired from Arizona with top-prospect Dansby Swansonand righty Aaron Blair in December – Nick Markakis and Hector Olivera are slated for starting positions come Opening Day, leaving Francoeur, Bourn and Nick Swisher as outfield options off the bench. Having that veteran group in the fold increases the likelihood of Smith beginning the 2016 campaign with Gwinnett.
But if a 69-game sample size was any sign of what’s to come, Smith is ready to join the big club sooner than later. A late-summer call-up appears in the cards for Smith, which would provide the final “leap” necessary in his career. With his plus-grade wheels (Baseball America ranks him as the fastest baserunner and best athlete in the Braves system) a solid year in Gwinnett should lead Smith to a permanent place in Atlanta’s outfield going forward.