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Closing Time: Mallex Smith, Ray of hope

Mallex Smith, Agent 0 (AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)

Not much has gone right for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018. They’re off to a 2-8 start, and the offense has been anemic (.220/.287/.323). Tampa Bay has just five home runs. If you’re a sports fan on the west central coast of Florida, I suggest you ride the Lightning for the next month or two, then get ready for football season.

That said, every MLB club is going to give us some semblance of fantasy value, and maybe Mallex Smith can turn into something to watch.

Smith was the star of Tampa’s Monday victory, collecting four hits and two steals at Chicago. Smith now has a snappy .350/.409/.500 line on the young season, starting against right-handed pitching. Smith’s been unlucky with the early schedule, as the Rays have already faced five opposing lefties.

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Smith’s been a solid offensive player in the platoon advantage through 143 career games, with a .280 average, .348 OBP and 29 steals. His stats have collapsed against lefties, for whatever 93 at-bats mean to you (.183/.240/.237). Given that the Rays are in developmental mode — they’re obviously not going to contend this year — I don’t see why they can’t leave the 24-year-old Smith in the lineup and see if he can grow into an effective regular. Remember, Smith had an 88-steal season in the minors, just four years ago. But for now, he’s a specialty player, starting some of the time.

The schedule starts to break Smith’s way in the coming two weeks, with eight opposing righties set in the next 11 dates. We’re going to see a lot of Mallex. And maybe Monday’s four-hit splash could get Smith upgraded in the batting order; he’s been in the bottom third for most of the year.

Yeah, he’s a one-trick pony. But it’s a pretty good trick, and it doesn’t take a lot of steals to make an impact in a fantasy league. Smith is currently owned in just 13 percent of Yahoo leagues. A good time to kick some tires.

• We figured the Brewers bullpen would be a cast of thousands in the absence of Corey Knebel, and all hands were on deck in Monday’s 5-4 win at St. Louis. Jeremy Jeffress recorded four outs in the fifth and sixth. Josh Hader had an electric appearance, striking out four of five batters. Jacob Barnes needed just 10 pitches to strike out two men, and then Matt Albers came on for the ninth, inheriting a one-run lead.

The Cardinals scratched a cheap run off Albers in the ninth, forcing extras, but Albers stayed for the tenth and wound up recording a win. He’s still at the head of this committee, though Barnes — comically unlucky in a weekend save chance — remains a factor, and the flame-throwing Hader could thrive in any bullpen role. Maybe he’ll see a matchup save chance down the line.

In short, we’re not anywhere close to resolving this situation.

The Cardinals bullpen isn’t tidied up yet, either. Greg Holland made his St. Louis debut in the tenth inning and was a mess — four walks (one intentional) sandwiched around a charitable Milwaukee sacrifice bunt. Eventually Bud Norris was summoned to put out the fire, but the one Brewers run held up. You suspect Holland might see some low-leverage work for an appearance or two, ironing things out. That could another save chance to Norris, who’s off to a terrific start (4.2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 8 K).

• No one was especially surprised when Jameson Taillon and Shohei Ohtani flirted with no-hit bids, but it was eye-opening to see Kansas City righty Jakob Junis join the club Monday. Junis wound up a one-hit wonder, allowing just three Seattle baserunners (1 H, 2 BB) over seven sparkling innings. He’s 2-0 on the year, and hasn’t allowed a run in 14 innings (3 BB, 9 K).

His biggest bugaboo to this point is plunking batters; he’s already up to three. At least it doesn’t harm the WHIP.

Junis would be an easier sell if he had a prospect pedigree. He was merely a 29th-round pick in the 2011 draft, and he never cracked the Top 100 prospect list on the three major clipboards. But he did turn some heads in Triple-A last year (in the PCL, no less), fashioning a 2.92 ERA and 1.07 WHIP, with 86 strikeouts in 71 innings.

Junis went on to make 20 appearances (16 starts) with the Royals and was credible: 4.30 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 80 strikeouts in 98.1 innings. It’s a start. He’s crept over the 50-percent ownership mark in Yahoo leagues already, but there’s still some room on the bandwagon, near the back. Coincidentally, he draws Ohtani and the Angels in his next turn, a Saturday game that is worth a watch.

Lance Lynn had a rotten first inning in his debut at Pittsburgh, but he was sharper in start two — five bagels and nine strikeouts against the Astros, of all teams. Considering how late Lynn signed in the offseason, we had to keep expectations reasonable with his early work. I still think Minnesota made a shrewd one-year signing here, and I expect Lynn to hold fantasy value in shallow, medium, and deep leagues. He’s recommended against the White Sox and Rays (in Tampa, which helps) over the next two weeks.

• Cincinnati infield prospect Nick Senzel could be a fast riser. Senzel has been playing second base this year, but he’ll slide to third for the time being — probably because the Reds eye him as an imminent replacement for the injured Eugenio Suarez (busted thumb). Senzel was the second pick in the 2016 draft, and the consensus No. 7 prospect entering 2018. His 119 games in the minors last year, over two levels, grab your attention: .321/.391/.514, with 14 homers and 14 steals.

Senzel was already a popular NA-tag stash for Yahoo leaguers who have that option, but it’s time to start considering him as a grab-and-hold in traditional formats. He’s still unclaimed in 90 percent of Yahoo leagues.