It’s been a rough winter for Braves outfielder Mallex Smith, who left his Puerto Rican league team after a recurrence of a strained oblique that undermined his brief stint with a Mexican league team in October.
Mayaguez Indians general manager Frankie Thon was upset last week after Smith left the team — Thon told Puerto Rico reporters that Smith hadn’t asked for permission and had breached his contract — but a Braves official said it was the Braves’ decision, not Smith’s.
Smith, 23, wanted to continue playing in Puerto Rico, but the Braves brought him home as a precautionary measure after the side-muscle injury flared again. He played in only five games for Mayaguez, posting a .375 on-base percentage and going 5-for-20 with two doubles, three RBIs, four walks, two strikeouts and two stolen bases. All the games were in a six-day stretch Dec. 13-18.
The Braves sought the spot on the Puerto Rican team for Smith to give him another chance to get at-bats after a broken thumb caused him to miss 2 1/2 months of his rookie season.
He was released by the Hermosillo Naranjeros after struggling in 2 1/2 weeks with the Mexican winter league team, batting .109 (5-for-46) with two walks, 12 strikeouts, a .157 OBP and .418 OPS in 12 games. He had two triples and a home run for Hermosillo, but when the side injury limited him the team released him.
Winter-ball seasons are relatively short, and teams often have litt le patience for injured players, particularly imported players who are expected to produce.
As a Braves rookie in 2016, Smith hit .238 with a .316 OBP and .681 OPS in 72 games and had 14 extra-base hits (four triples, three home runs) and 16 stolen bases in 215 plate appearances. He missed 10 weeks with a broken thumb after being hit by a pitch June 19.
Smith didn’t play much at all after coming off the disabled list in September, as the Braves had traded for veteran left fielder Matt Kemp before the July 31 deadline and were getting strong production from their outfield trio of Kemp, Gold Glove center fielder Ender Inciarte and right fielder Nick Markakis.
With that veteran outfield returning intact, Braves manager Brian Snitker said there was a good chance that Smith, a speedy center fielder who can also play the outfield corners, would start the 2017 season at Triple-A Gwinnett to play every day and continue his development. The other option would be to begin the season as a Braves backup.
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