TORONTO — While manager Scott Servais often has maintained he knows the televisions cameras will always find him after a mistake by one of his players and, because of that, he will always control his emotions, no matter how angry he might be, there still are little cracks to his stoic facade that can be noticed.
Usually the most telling sign of displeasure is the removal of his hat, a quick rub of his dark hair now speckled with gray from those mistakes. After a stare of disgust, he then puts the hat back on with perhaps the slightest shake of the head.
It’s a reaction he’s had often this season with Mallex Smith amid the mental and physical mistakes made by the young outfielder. True to his beliefs, Servais has chosen to keep his displeasure in the clubhouse, handling any discipline or reactions in private. It’s how he prefers to handle most situations. But there is a limit to that privacy. Jean Segura found out late last season. Smith found out Saturday when he was benched for repeated mental mistakes in the field and on the bases, including a gaffe in the 7-3 defeat Friday.
How long Smith remains on the bench has yet to be determined by Servais. It’s a message Servais didn’t expect to have to send.
“I thought I delivered it yesterday and it wasn’t noted,” Servais said. “We’ve got to be smarter. It’s part of the game. You can be very, very talented and skilled and produce numbers, but part of any game at the professional level, you have to think the game, you have to understand the game, you have to know the scoreboard and the situations like that. And those are areas he struggles at.”
In the first series of the road trip, Smith committed two silly base-running mistakes for outs and also missed a cut-off throw, allowing a baserunner to advance. Throw in some baserunning miscues from J.P. Crawford and Austin Nola for outs, and Servais decided to call a team meeting Friday afternoon before the series with the Blue Jays to address the team’s play.
“We talked about it in a pregame meeting,” Servais said. “And a couple hours later we had the same situation. It’s have a feel. It’s decision making. You have to make good decisions in the batter’s box on your swing decisions, what pitches you are going to throw if you are on the mound, how you run the bases, what bases you throw to, it’s a huge part of our game. It’s constantly making good decisions and anticipating what’s going to happen.”
Hours after the meeting, Smith singled home Dee Gordon in the eighth inning to bring the Mariners to four runs down. As he rounded first, he saw center fielder Teoscar Hernandez misplay the ball slightly. Smith sprinted for second and was thrown out by about six steps. It was an unnecessary gamble for a 90-foot gain considering the large deficit, and it failed. In the dugout, Servais removed his hat and shook his head in disgust. He then walked into the room behind the dugout to vent his anger after Smith sat down behind him.
“I get it,” Servais said. “You see the guy miss the ball and you take a couple of hard steps and you think, ‘Oh (expletive), we are down four,’ and ‘Whoa.’ That whoa moment doesn’t always happen for him.”
This isn’t the first discussion with Smith. They’ve had multiple conversations about the line of being aggressive while being cognizant of what is important.
“You can talk about it, and you can say, ‘I get it, I get it. I’m sorry. My bad,’ but that only goes so far,” Servais said. “And after a while, you say, ‘Let’s take a little break,’ and that’s where we are at.”
This isn’t the first complaint about Smith’s lack of awareness in the game. Sources have said it was an issue in Tampa last season. The Rays loved Smith’s talent and athleticism and work ethic, but felt it didn’t overcome his lack of situational awareness on the bases and in the field. With the Mariners in rebuild mode, Servais doesn’t want it to be seen as allowable actions.
“It’s not acceptable,” Servais said. “And we talked about it as a team. Everybody else got the message loud and clear. Yeah, he made a mistake. But it’s multiple times. One time? Yeah, I get it. Two times? OK, we are learning. Three times? That’s too much.”
Re-acquired from the Rays this offseason along with Jake Fraley in a trade that sent Mike Zunino and Guillermo Heredia and minor-league pitcher Michael Plassmeyer to Tampa, Smith has been a disappointment this season. Seattle viewed him as its everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter. He was coming off a strong season in Tampa, posting a .296/.367/.406 slash line with 27 doubles, 10 triples, two homers, 40 RBI and 40 stolen bases.
But scouts pointed to Smith’s uneven home/road splits as a sign of concern. He had a .347/.415/.471 line at home, and a .244/.317/.340 slash line on the road. They felt that playing on the turf in Tampa greatly helped him generate hits, also pointing to a .415 batting average on balls in play.
As for his defense, his speed and athleticism allowed him to offset what were meandering routes to balls and late jumps off the bat.
Smith’s first season with the Mariners was disjointed before it even started. He suffered a strained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow while doing offseason throwing work and trying to build arm strength. He started spring training unable to participate on a full basis. He began the season on the injured list and didn’t make the trip to Japan.
He was activated from the injured list when the Mariners returned for the restart of the regular season. But he struggled at the plate and in the field, posting a .165/.255/.247 line in the first 27 games with a whopping 33 strikeouts. Throw in some careless errors on routine fly balls, and he was demoted to Class AAA Tacoma on April 29 to figure some things out.
To be fair, Smith has been much improved in the field since the return. He shows up early to work on his defense with outfield coach Chris Prieto before every game. The mistakes on routine balls have lessened. There are still occasional awkward routes and misplays, but it’s cleaner than before.
At the plate, he’s got a .260/.322/.386 line with 17 doubles, five triples, four homers, 26 RBI and 26 stolen bases since his return. It’s improved production, but not at the expected level.
There are plenty of questions surrounding Smith’s future. He’s making the MLB minimum this season and will enter his first year of arbitration eligibility next season. It means he’s still relatively affordable. And at 26, he’s still in prime years. But it’s fair to wonder how much this season has diminished his future standing in the Mariners rebuild, particularly with so many top prospects playing outfield.
But his value as a player isn’t nearly as high as when the Mariners traded for him. And there is no guarantee the prospects will be ready to play by opening day in 2020. There will be interesting decisions regarding Smith in the days and months to come. But for now, the first decision will be when he gets to play again.