Mallex Smith tripled to lead off Triple-A Gwinnett’s season opener Thursday at Norfolk, struck out in two of his next three at-bats, and hit a bloop double in the ninth inning.
It was a fairly representative glance at the game right now of the Braves’ center-field prospect, whose blazing speed and other significant skills, though still a bit raw, make him one of the more exciting prospects in the organization.
Which is another reason that acquiring center fielder Ender Inciarte from Arizona as part of the December trade for Shelby Miller is looking so good right now for the Braves.
Because on top of playing Gold Glove-caliber defense and hitting for average, Inciarte eliminates the temptation to rush Smith, an ex-high school football star who’ll turn 23 in May and hasn’t played as much baseball as most prospects his age.
That is, as long as Inciarte stays healthy — he left Friday’s game in the first inning with soreness in his left hamstring and his status was listed as day-to-day. Drew Stubbs, an end-of-spring-training signee, replaced Inciarte in center Friday.
Eventually, the Braves will have to decide whether to move Inciarte or Smith to a corner-outfield spot. But not right now.
“It’s a problem, but you know what makes it a lot easier for me is that you don’t (need to) hurry on Mallex Smith,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “All of a sudden he becomes a guy where you say, we can take our time developing you and let you play the game and become a finished product before running him up here. Because if you have to run him up here (before he’s ready) all of a sudden he’s getting picked off, he’s over-sliding bases or throwing to the wrong cutoff, and he’s not ready.
“Having Inciarte here, makes that situation where he can develop himself into a good major leaguer when he comes up here.”
It was generally assumed during spring training that Smith, who had two triples in the first inning of his first Grapefruit League start and hit .346 in major-league camp, would be up in the big leagues by summer. But after watching Inciarte flash his considerable defensive skills in the first couple of games, and after hearing Gonzalez talk about Smith’s situation, it doesn’t sound as if it’s a given Smith will be up that soon.
“In spring training you watch these two young men play,” Gonzalez said, “and you’re going, OK, you’ve got a polished major league player in Inciarte, who’s an old guy at 25 (Gonzalez smiles). And you’ve got this young kid who’s coming up and you know what? We can take our time with him and develop him the right way, polish his game.
“And when he’s up here he’ll be more ready to play in the big leagues and ready to stay. Now, when is that timetable? Who knows. He’ll let us know (by his performance).”