Mariners Deal for Mallex Smith Removes Potential Leadoff Option for Cubs

Give Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto credit. The consummate wheeler-dealer keeps his team in contention seemingly with smoke and mirrors. He did it again Wednesday night – and removed an attractive lineup option for the Cubs in the process – with an early-strike deal for Tampa’s leadoff-hitting outfielder Mallex Smith.

Smith has been mentioned a few times in recent CI articles and reader comments as a potential trade target for the Cubs, who have spent two years trying to adequately fill that spot at the top of the order. The 25-year-old finally fulfilled his minor league potential in 2018, breaking out with 40 steals and a .367 OBP in 127 starts. He also popped enough doubles and triples to post a .773 OPS, very impressive for a non-slugger.

In terms of trade cost, I thought of Smith as an poor man’s Whit Merrifield. As expected, Seattle didn’t need to overpay for him. The cost was two years of control of all-defense, no-hit catcher Mike Zunino and fourth outfielder Guillermo Heredia. The Rays and Mariners also swapped quality A-ball prospects, with the Rays receiving the better of the two.

Seattle will be able to pair Smith with another 30-plus steal threat in Dee Gordon, hitting them either 1-2 or in the 9-1 in the order. This should constantly force pitchers to mix in extra fastballs to sluggers like Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager.

One wonders if a Cubs package centered on Albert Almora Jr. and Victor Caratini could have been more attractive to Tampa. Smith would have more than replaced Almora’s offense, but with the added facet of a top base-stealing threat. Almora’s defense is superior, but Smith is no worse than average in center with plus range.

Given the Cubs’ reported payroll concerns, Smith not hitting arbitration until after 2019 would also have been attractive. But unless Dipoto is open to flipping someone he just acquire (which is never really out of the question), we can cross Smith off the list of options. Thus the Cubs will need to look elsewhere to augment and diversify a lineup that infamously “broke” this past season.

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Jeff Burdick

A California-based refugee of Chicago, Jeff loves writing about baseball through the lens of his favorite hometown team.

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