Mariners outfielder Mallex Smith says he’s ‘as ready as I can be’ after returning from elbow strain
Standing in the Cheney Stadium dugout Saturday afternoon, Mallex Smith reflected on the past week.
Tuesday, the Seattle Mariners optioned the 25-year-old center fielder to Triple-A. He reported to Tacoma on Saturday. During the days in between, he escaped back to his native Florida to clear his head and gather his thoughts about a taxing April that saw him struggle at the plate and in the field.
“It was nice to regroup,” Smith said. “Get some of that sun, and that warmth, you know?”
But, this Florida trip wasn’t a vacation. Smith — acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays in the offseason for catcher Mike Zunino — went there to begin extensive work on his game after one of the bumpiest stretches of his major league career.
He posted a .165/.255/.247 slash line and had a 15-game stretch where he went 3-for-46 (.065) with 18 strikeouts. In his last 24 at-bats with the Mariners, he was hitless. In his final two games, he also misplayed a pair of routine flyballs against the Texas Rangers, committing errors in consecutive games for the first time in his career.
When Smith was optioned, Mariners manager Scott Servais said he and general manager Jerry Dipoto met with Smith to discuss sending him to Triple-A to reset.
“Mallex totally understood where we were coming from,” Servais said. “He asked if he could get on a plane and fly to Salt Lake and play there (with the Rainiers on Tuesday night). He wants to get right, and knows he can help our club, and we need him. He knows he’s going to be a big part of our future here going forward.
“Those meetings are never easy. You don’t look forward to them. … He’s got to go down and play well, and make a few adjustments, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he will.”
Smith said his gut response was to immediately get some at-bats and start working on his struggles with the Rainiers.
“And then I thought to myself, instead of rushing to go get in the lineup again, let me go work on some of my mechanics,” Smith said. “Just figure out if it’s mechanical, what’s going on, and be able to come back into the lineup a lot more comfortable.”
Instead of joining the Rainiers in Salt Lake City he went to Florida to meet with hitting instructor Frankie Colon, who he has worked with before. The goal was to iron out mechanics and timing and rebuild his confidence at the plate.
“Tim Beckham actually introduced me to him, and we developed a relationship through that,” Smith said. “He just really studies the game, studies hitting, and breaks it down for me in a manner that I can understand and I’m comfortable with.”
Smith said he and Colon worked on staying through the ball, more than anything, to help Smith even back out.
“I’ve been pulling off, dipping up under it,” Smith said. “Just staying on top and staying through the ball. … I definitely enjoyed my session, and I feel like he always helps.”
Smith is hopeful the extra work with Colon will help him resolve some of the issues the Mariners identified during the first month of the season.
“We’re trying to incorporate his lower half into his swing,” Servais said. “It’s almost like he’s swinging flat-footed, and he just looks so disconnected. And, to Mallex’s point, it was, ‘I’ve never missed this many fastballs before.’ When players make those types of comments, they know things aren’t right.”
Servais and Smith agree that his shortened preparation time — he missed most of spring training with a right elbow strain — at least somewhat contributed to his slow start.
“By the time I got started, it was time to go,” Smith said.
Smith played in some minor league games in Arizona when the Mariners were in Japan, but Servais said at-bats were “crammed in” as Smith tried to play catch-up.
“When you’re doing that, you’re also not playing defense all the time,” Servais said. “So, you’re not in the normal flow of the game. We knew it was going to be an issue getting started, that’s what I mentioned when we came back from Japan.
“I didn’t want to play him every day. Played him a couple days, gave him a day off. You try to break (him) in, but it’s the big leagues and you need guys to produce and you need them out there. I think there’s a lot to be said for he didn’t have a normal spring.”
Servais said he thought Smith’s first 30-40 at-bats of the regular season looked promising and competitive, but the production started to slip after that.
“I had a rough April,” Smith said. “I don’t weight it too heavy, I just kind of take it for what it’s worth. I’m not making no history. This is something that thousands of other players have gone through.
“I’m just happy to be able to still have a job, and be able to work it out, and have a team that has faith in me.”
It was clear Saturday afternoon in Tacoma Smith’s determination to return to the majors. He looked comfortable swinging during batting practice, and made a concerted effort to chase down fly balls in center field as his teammates took their swings.
When the game started, Smith hit a leadoff single, stole both second and third, and scored on a sacrifice fly by shortstop J.P. Crawford.
Smith finished 2-for-5 and Tacoma’s only score, putting the ball in play each at-bat with solid contact. On defense, he recorded five putouts in center field without an issue.
“I’m not coming down here to go through the motions,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, you have to perform. I’m not down here on assignment, I got optioned. So, ultimately, I’m a minor-leaguer.
“Just like every other minor-leaguer, I’ve got to put in the necessary effort and earn my right to be back in the major leagues. That’s what I’m focusing on right now.”