ATLANTA -- Mallex Smith missed most of the past season's second half with a fractured thumb and then went to the Mexican Winter League only to be released just a few weeks later. The Braves outfielder is now playing in Puerto Rico to make up for lost time and prepare for an unknown role for the upcoming season.
With Matt Kemp, Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis set to serve as the starting outfielders, the Braves must determine whether to enter the upcoming season with Smith as a backup in Atlanta or an everyday player for Triple-A Gwinnett. The first option could provide immediate late-inning benefits and the latter would seemingly best satisfy the long-term interests of the talented, but still raw outfielder.
"[Smith] is a talented player, but he still needs more development," Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said. "At the same point, Mallex is interesting because he can do a lot of things for you. He can [play] all three outfield positions and he can run. But the question we are asking ourselves is, 'Are we doing him a disservice and ultimately ourselves a disservice by making him a role or bench player?'"
Assuming the Braves will enter the season with an eight-man bullpen, they have to plan for a four-man bench. Three of these backup roles will be filled by the backup catcher (likely Anthony Recker), whichever member of the Jace Peterson/Sean Rodriguez duo isn't in that game's lineup and quite possibly Chase d'Arnaud. The fourth and final spot could be filled by either Smith or possibly a player who is not currently within the organization.
Rio Ruiz's candidacy to open the season on Atlanta's bench is weakened by the fact his defensive versatility doesn't extend beyond a corner-infield spot. With Peterson, Rodriguez and d'Arnaud, the Braves have three super-utility players who can handle each infield and outfield spot.
The versatility of these three super-utility options could also impact the decision regarding where Smith begins the season. Their ability to handle either of the three outfield spots provides suitable backup options for Kemp, Inciarte and Markakis, each of whom has made it clear to manager Brian Snitker that they want to play on an everyday basis without receiving anything that closely resembles routinely scheduled days off.
Smith was rushed to the big league level this past season because of Inciarte's hamstring strain and endured some immediate struggles. But as he hit .272, compiled a .338 on-base percentage and stole 12 bases (17 attempts) within a 43-game stretch leading to the fractured thumb sustained on June 19, he provided a glimpse of the value he can provide with his bat, legs and glove.
Having placed a primary focus on football throughout most of his high school days, Smith's rawness to the game was witnessed via some baserunning gaffes, bunting mistakes and errant routes to fly balls. The 23-year-old rookie also drew the ire of some veterans as he did not participate in some optional batting-practice sessions as frequently as they would have liked.
But as has been the case with many other young players, the 2016 season might have simply served as a valuable learning experience for Smith, who was humbled yet again in October when he was released after going 5-for-46 at the plate while possibly battling an oblique strain in Mexico.
If Smith begins this season on Atlanta's bench, he could serve as a late-inning defensive replacement for Kemp or provide some value as a pinch-runner. His potential value as a pinch-hitter would be weakened by his susceptibility to left-handed pitching (he produced four hits and drew five walks in 57 plate appearances against southpaws this year).
Recognizing there's still some area for Smith to grow and the fact they have some other bench options, the Braves seem to be leaning toward having Smith begin this season with Gwinnett. But at the same time, they are willing to enter Spring Training with an open mind concerning his immediate future.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.