This is a surprise, though not an utter shock: The Atlanta Braves have traded Mallex Smith to the Seattle Mariners. For a time last year — until Smith got hurt and Dansby Swanson arrived — when the smallish outfielder was the most promising non-pitcher acquired in this rebuild to reach the big leagues. But events intervened, as events will.
Smith suffered a broken thumb when hit by an Antonio Bastardo pitch June 20. He had only 23 plate appearances the rest of the season, a time that saw two major changes in the Braves’ outfield. For one, Matt Kemp arrived in a deadline trade from San Diego. For another, Ender Inciarte started to hit and didn’t stop.
Even when expressing optimism about Smith’s potential, the Braves had a sizable reservation: An outfield of Smith, Inciarte and Nick Markakis would leave them with three left-handed hitters, none of whom hit many home runs. Kemp offers a right-handed power threat. Inciarte is among the best center fielders in the game and just re-upped through 2021 with a club option for 2022, so he’s going nowhere. And Markakis actually generated 13 homers last season after the three of 2015, leading the Braves to believe he’s over his neck issues.
That would have made Smith the Braves’ fourth outfielder, and you’d rather your fourth outfielder be a seasoned guy. (A player not yet established would be better served playing daily in the minors.) The Braves just acquired Sean Rodriguez, who can play most positions. With him on the roster, Smith would have started the season in Triple-A with no clear path back to the bigs.
But this wasn’t a trade to get rid of somebody. The Braves really like Luiz Gohara, a 20-year-old lefty starter from Brazil who has 228 strikeouts in 204 2/3 minor-league innings. Baseball Prospectus just rated him the No. 3 prospect in Seattle’s system, even as it conceded that there’s risk involved. Wrote Christopher Crawford: “There are some serious concerns about his weight and work ethic going forward.”
That’s a gamble the Braves are willing to take, especially with young pitchers. (Maybe you knew that already.) They’ve spent this offseason making moves to shore up their development department, firing Roger McDowell and hiring Dom Chiti and Dave Wallace away from Baltimore. Gohara is another promising young arm to add to the stockpile.
Gohara made strides last season, cutting his WHIP from 1.82 in 2015 to 1.08. He still hasn’t been above Single-A, and he received $800,000 for signing with Seattle in 2012. The Mariners — who’ve since changed general managers — surely thought it was time to get what they could for him, and getting Smith and Shae Simmons isn’t nothing. But the Braves believe Gohara has a chance to be special, and Smith had become a spare part. There’s your rationale for this trade.
Smith marks the second major prospect acquired by the Braves in the sell-off of 2014/2015 to be jettisoned. (Tyrell Jenkins being the first.) Smith came from San Diego in the Justin Upton deal, along with Max Fried and the Petersons, Jace and Dustin. J. Peterson has become a big-leaguer and figures to remain one. Fried, who came off Tommy John surgery to become a fixture in Single-A Rome’s prized rotation, is coming fast. That’s still a great trade. If Gohara approaches his potential, this one could be, too.