Seattle Mariners

If Mariners have Mallex Smith in center field, what does that mean for Dee Gordon, Robinson Cano?

Tampa Bay Rays’ Mallex Smith runs out a hit against the Boston Red Sox during the fourth inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Tampa Bay Rays’ Mallex Smith runs out a hit against the Boston Red Sox during the fourth inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson) AP

Mallex Smith has already been a Seattle Mariner – for 77 minutes.

That was before the 2017 season, and as fast as Jerry Dipoto acquired him from the Braves he then traded him to the Rays for pitcher Drew Smyly.

So Smith was asked just how long he figures the Mariners will keep him around this time.

“You know, Dipoto didn’t guarantee me anything,” Smith said. “He did say I’ll at least have 78 minutes, so we’ll see.”

The Mariners acquired Smith and outfield prospect Jake Fraley, a former second-round draft pick, from the Rays on Thursday in exchange for catcher Mike Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia and pitching prospect Michael Plassmeyer.

What the Mariners lost in Zunino they gained in a young, fast and athletic outfielder who won’t be a free agent until 2023.

Smith played all three outfield positions in a breakout 2018 season for the Rays. In his first full big-league season the 25-year-old batted .296/.367/.406, led the American League with 10 triples, hit 27 doubles and stole 40 bases.

“It just shows you they made a mistake and wanted me back,” Smith joked. “But, no, it feels good. The team wanted me enough to come get me again, so I really appreciate that.”

He said he’s expecting to be the Mariners’ next center fielder one year after the Mariners acquired Dee Gordon from the Marlins to convert him from a Gold Glove second baseman to center field (a position he’d never before played in the big leagues).

So expect a domino effect with this trade.

Dipoto told reporters at the general managers meetings in Carlsbad, California, this week that he preferred Gordon move back to the infield next season – something he said before the trade for Smith became official.

“We’ve already talked to Dee, but the hope is we’ll have created some solution by the time our roster starts to develop,” Dipoto said. “Dee is one of our most athletic and versatile players, so we know there are potential outcomes that exist for him playing other positions. We don’t know what that is yet.

“Our preference would be that he plays the infield because that’s what he does best.”

But that means they’ll need to move either Jean Segura or Robinson Cano from the middle infield. Maybe they look to trade Segura, even though he has a no-trade clause, and play Gordon at shortstop, a position he played in the minors. Or Cano is converted to more duties at first base and designated hitter so Gordon can play second.

If Cano changes positions then that’s less time at first base for Ryon Healy and/or Daniel Vogelbach (who is out of minor league options). And this means the Mariners are that much more unlikely to bring Nelson Cruz back as their DH.

And there was this from Cano, the two-time Gold Glove second baseman, after the Mariners’ final game of the 2018 season:

“Next year I’m going to be back and playing second base,” he said. “That’s what I am. It was a situation that happened this year and I was playing some new positions, but all I know is I’m a second baseman.”

As if things weren’t awkward enough heading into 2019 for these Mariners, who have been stuck in middle-of-the-pack purgatory in the American League.

One thing is for certain: If Dipoto holds onto both Smith and Gordon, next year’s team will have some speed, assuming Gordon returns to his 2017 form when he led the NL with 60 stolen bases. Hampered by a toe injury in 2018, he swiped 30 bases.

“Me and Dee have a good off-the-field relationship,” Smith said. “It will definitely be a pleasure to be able to play with him, as well as learn from him. He’s still my elder. He’s done some things I haven’t been able to do in my career.

“Just being able to learn from him and pick apart defenses – that will be nice.”

And maybe Gordon can learn a thing or two about controlling the strike zone from Smith.

That’s what Smith said helped him take off this past season was better pitch selection.

“When I was striking out heavier early in the season, I was swinging at everything,” Smith said. “I just grasped the concept of swinging at pitches that I thought were good to hit and letting the ones I didn’t go, whether they were strikes or not. It definitely made a big difference for me.”

And Dipoto said that’s the Smith they envision going forward.

“Bringing Mallex back home to Seattle is exciting for us all,” Dipoto said (seemingly tongue-in-cheek) in a press release. “His combination of speed, base-running impact, defense and on-base abilities are unique in today’s game. We believe his breakout 2018 performance reflects the many ways his skills will positively impact the Mariners for years to come.”

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677; Twitter: @TJCotterill

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