The Atlanta Braves announced on Thursday that outfielder Mallex Smith, who has been sidelined with a fractured left thumb since June 19, will begin a rehab assignment with Double-A Mississippi beginning on Thursday night. The club has yet to announce a target date for Smith’s return to Atlanta, but beat writer Mark Bowman speculates that Smith could get the call sometime next week. Upon his return, Smith will join an already crowded Atlanta outfield that features Matt Kemp, Ender Inciarte, and Nick Markakis, all of whom have played well of late. It could be a challenge to find regular at-bats for Smith over the season’s final weeks, but manager Brian Snitker does have the luxury of using Smith in other roles such as a defensive replacement or pinch-runner.

After entering the 2016 season as the Braves highest-ranked outfield prospect, Smith quickly earned an opportunity with the big club when newly acquired center fielder Inciarte was placed on the disabled list after just three games. Smith played in 58 games with Atlanta, posting a batting line of .237/.312/.379 with 14 stolen bases in 21 attempts. The key to Smith’s development as he becomes a more integral part of the lineup will be an improvement versus left-handed pitchers, against whom he batted just .067/.167/.111. The Braves batted Smith leadoff for much of this season prior to his injury, and he figures to get a long look next season as the organization begins to make a push back toward contention. For Smith to return a month earlier than expected from an injury that could have greatly affected his swing has to be encouraging for Atlanta.

Though the Braves have received great production from Inciarte this season, especially in the second half, the team should receive a boost once Smith returns. Adding yet another outfielder with great speed not only strengthens the Atlanta lineup, but also the defense. Inciarte is one of the better defensive outfielders in baseball, and having Smith occupy an outfield spot alongside him only serves to strengthen a pitching staff that needs all the help it can get. But this return is not so much about what the Braves can accomplish this season, but what the team may look like next season. A healthy, productive Smith could open up the possibility of an outfielder such as Nick Markakis being dealt this offseason. This could allow the Braves to be more aggressive in free agency as they attempt to solve their catching woes and strengthen their starting rotation. The return of Smith could have some bearing on the structure of the Braves roster next season, but for now let’s just celebrate the fact that yet another Braves top prospect is going to join the big club soon.

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