As recently as a couple weeks ago, it started becoming clear that Abraham Almonte was more than a fringe candidate to make the Seattle Mariners out of spring training. He was drawing rave reviews from Lloyd McClendon and displaying the same athleticism that made him last year’s most exciting non-rotation September call up. From virtually the get-go of spring training it was assumed that Almonte had the inside track to the Mariners fourth outfielder job. Now, it seems like he’s in line for much more than that.
Last night against the San Francisco Giants, Almonte was the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter, going two for three with a dinger. The night before that against the Colorado Rockies, Almonte was the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. Two days before that, what do you know, starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. Just about every one of Almonte’s appearances this spring has been as the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. At this point he’s a lock to make the team. Maybe he was always a lock to make the team. But now it’s become pretty clear that once he makes the team, he’ll have a role that’s considerably more substantial than most folks initially envisioned.
Almonte as the starting CF makes sense. McClendon’s made some recent comments absolutely blasting last year’s outfield defense, and now finds himself with a roster generally lacking so much as defensive competence. Michael Saunders was once considered a talented center fielder but the shine has worn off, and now McClendon appears to be rightfully thinking of him as more of a corner guy. Dustin Ackley has also been moved off of center, though nobody ever confused him for a plus defender at any outfield spot. Corey Hart and Logan Morrison also remain ~passable options for the corners due to insane roster construction and an organizational obsession with big dingers and crappy defense, which means the M’s have four candidates for two spots, with only one of those candidates an acceptable defender. Having bad-to-mediocre corner outfielders essentially necessitates a quality guy in center. Abe Almonte is that quality guy.
No, he probably won’t play every day, what with the above described roster crunch and loads of guys with longer track records vying for his plate appearances. But what’s stopping him, really? Saunders can fake it in center a couple times a week, which in theory would be days he spends away from the corners in favor of LoMo or whoever. Almonte is going to see some bench time, but so will Saunders, and so will Morrison. Dustin Ackley isn’t guaranteed daily playing time, and Corey Hart doesn’t even have knees.
These Mariners, at least the season-opening rendition of these Mariners, are not going to have a traditional fourth outfielder. They are going to have five guys who see occasional outfield time, with none of them being the 150-games-a-year variety. There’s going to be a lot of mixing and matching. But Almonte’s the best defender and the only true center fielder, so he stands to gobble up a serious share of the playing time.
Even if Almonte makes sense as the center fielder, his role as the leadoff guy on a team with playoff dreams is highly questionable. As fast as he may be, Almonte’s no guarantee to become an on-base machine in the majors. Much can be made of his .403 OBP with the Rainiers last season, but here’s how that happened: 1) playing in the minors, 2) he was batting .314, and 3) got a nice boost from a .363 BABIP. Almonte likes to talk about patience, and indeed posted above-average walk rates throughout the minors while keeping his strikeouts within reason. This makes him a good bet to stay disciplined against major league hurlers, but nothing is guaranteed. He has the makings of a leadoff hitter, but he’ll have to hit and walk more than the projections think he will in order to justify the job.
It’s funny to think that the Mariners suddenly find themselves in a position where Abe Almonte is one of the most pivotal components to a season where expectations are – fairly or unfairly- sky high. Here’s a defense-first guy who has all of 82 major league plate appearances, playing for the team that spent more than anyone except the Yankees in free agency, and he’s expected to bat leadoff and play high-end defense up the middle. Going into spring training, he was barely a favorite for the fourth outfielder role. But Abe Almonte is here, poised to be the first Mariner to bat when the regular season begins in two short weeks. He’s 24 years old and a gifted athlete who is still years away from his physical prime, a guy who was had for a song last spring and now looks like a potentially valuable ballplayer. That’s really something.