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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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The Mallex Smith effect can take effect for Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — Mallex Smith has style.

Effervescent personality. Pop culture hipness. Sense of fashion with accoutrements.

Now the Rays are going to find out if he has game.

More specifically, enough game to be a front-line outfielder, even an impact player, in the majors.

A season that isn't projecting to yield many wins will at least provide opportunity.

And the frustrating loss of standout center fielder Kevin Kiermaier for a large chuck of a third straight year puts Smith atop the list of Rays players in position to take advantage.

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Offensively, the first couple weeks have been promising. Smith got to Thursday ranked second in the American League with a .373 average and seventh with a .418 on-base percentage, though he could benefit from better bunting.

Defensively, though, there's been concerns. Between misplays and missed  plays, Smith has made too many mistakes that have caused too many problems too many times.

"Mallex is at that point we know how much he can help us offensively and impact us when he gets on base. He's got a knack for his approach at the plate and not trying to do too much most of the time,'' manager Kevin Cash said.

"Defensively, we've talked about it from day one how much we value it. We need to get him to do that. I think this will be an opportunity for him to really focus on filling in for an elite center fielder. We're not asking him to be KK. Go be Mallex. But be kind of clean out there and make the plays that you're capable of making.''

Smith, 24, would seem to have the ability, most obviously game-changing speed. Rays staff and coaches say he has the right attitude, willing to put in the time to address his shortcomings. Though in his third season in the majors between the Braves and Rays, he still doesn't have that much experience, starting only 131 games.

"He's shown that he likes to work,'' Rays outfield coach Rocco Baldelli said. "He's putting a lot of attention on his outfield play. And with the kind of athlete that he is, he has a chance to be an excellent outfielder. And I think he's well on his way.''

Smith, typically, is in a hurry to get there.

"I'm not really here to prove myself or establish myself,'' he said. "I'm here to help the team win. Whatever I can do to help the team win, that's what I'm here for.''

And if that requires extra work and effort, Smith says he is committed.

"My all-around game — I don't want to lack in any areas,'' he said. "So wherever I'm lacking, I'm going to practice to be better. .. I can make better throws. I can make more plays. There's still a lot to be done.''

Here are three other Rays in position to take advantage of injury-created opportunity:

•  Infielder Daniel Robertson. Though the short half of the second base platoon with lefty-swinging Joey Wendle, his combination of matured offensive approach — a .455 on-base percentage keyed by 12 walks —and adjusted launch angle to his to his swing has been intriguing. And with third baseman Matt Duffy sidelined for now, Robertson is in line to be in the lineup every day to show what he can do at the plate. The work in the field continues to dazzle.

•  Right-hander Yonny Chirinos. He struggled a bit Tuesday, but has still been the best of the "Bullpen Day" starters. And that puts the quiet rookie in position to move into the No. 4 spot in the rotation that has been down a man with Nathan Eovaldi out, and will be until late May. Look for him to start Sunday.

•  Outfielder Johnny Field. The trickle down of Kevin Kiermaier's injury is that Field gets to stick around for a while, getting starts in left and right. At some point the Rays will have to decide between him and Rob Refsnyder, who is out of options and can't be sent down as Field can. But, for now, Johnny Ballgame has the chance to impress.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays

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