The Mariners, for all intents and purposes, set their 25-man roster yesterday with the cuts they made. Perhaps you've caught on by now, but I've used spring training to feature particularly interesting players on the team - ranging from relative unknowns (Stefen Romero and Roenis Elias) to knowns that will hopefully take a step forward (Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley). Today I round out the previews with Abraham Almonte.
The Mariners acquired Almonte last year from the Yankees when they traded away Shawn Kelley. It's hard finding much in terms of analysis about the trade because Almonte wasn't considered much beyond depth. He opened up last year in AA, despite being 23 years old, a rather advanced age for AA.
However, thanks to a lack of outfield depth combined with a surprising season at the plate, Almonte surged to AAA and muscled his way into the majors for a look in September which showed some promise. In particular, Abe flashed surprising power last year, blasting 17 home runs combined across AA, AAA, and MLB after his previous season-high in the minors was 8. His walk rate also improved without a loss in batting average. Lloyd McClendon reportedly likes Almonte's power-speed combo, so the spike in home runs is noteworthy.
Still, Abe Almonte, opening day center fielder? He's never been considered a bona fide outfield prospect. McClendon also appears set on making him the leadoff hitter, which further asserts that he's seen as a real piece on the 2014 Mariners. Is Almonte everything McClendon thinks he is?
Let's start with Almonte's defense. There's no way to know how good it is. Here's what is known though: the other options aren't good. Michael Saunders is capable, but below average and better suited for a corner. Ackley also didn't look big-league caliber in his short audition last season. Playing Almonte in center at least allows others to play better fits defensively; so, if Almonte can play center field capably, if not spectacularly, it's a real boost to the ball club. I am not convinced that Almonte is any better in center than Saunders, but why not find out? Nobody should argue that Ackley, Almonte, and Saunders are the M's best defensive outfield, given the other options on the roster.
My biggest bone of contention is with Almonte's hitting. He is not a leadoff hitter, plain and simple. Never has been, likely never will be. His strikeout rate in the minors has hovered in the 16%-20% range - in other words, a whiff roughly once every 5 or 6 trips to the plate. Predictably, that rate spiked a bit in the majors last season. He's likely to strikeout, on average, about once a game, which as a regular puts him on pace for 150-160 strikeouts in the season.
The strikeouts aren't enough of a reason on their own to bump Almonte down in the order but they point to the main issue, and in my humble opinion, the main error in McClendon's thinking. It seems that those in love with Almonte's skill set see a young man who hustles with great speed and surprising pop - basically a guy who will put lots of stress on the defense and stir things up at the top of the order.
Indeed, Almonte has great speed, and it results in both stolen bases and overall above-average base running according to the data available on FanGraphs. However, Almonte's greatest traits are only factors when he puts the ball in play, and he doesn't do that often enough, especially given his marginal power (even with the boost this past season) to be a true impact batter.
I worry that Abe Almonte will be for Lloyd McClendon what Brian Hunter was for Lou Piniella in 1999. Hunter was a gangly gazelle of sorts that the Mariners acquired as their latest, greatest solution in left field. He looked the part of a classic leadoff hitter - not much power but blazing speed. He stole 44 bases that season so he put that speed to good use. It was easy to see him flying around the bases in front of that loaded late '90s murder's row that the Mariners put together.
However, take a closer look, and Hunter was an abysmal lead off hitter in 1999. He sported a .277 OBP, which might explain how he scored only 71 runs with the Mariners despite Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Edgar Martinez (all in their primes) batting immediately behind him.
Almonte is a better hitter than Hunter ever was. That's not where I'm going with the comparison. My main point is that it seems McClendon only sees the positives in Almonte. That's the kind of thinking that leads managers to trot the Brian Hunters of the world out in pivotal positions despite crippling flaws.
There are good reasons that scouts have always projected Abe Almonte as outfield depth. He is versatile, with some speed, and even some power, but holes in his swing and only capable but unspectacular defense. The Mariners are thin in center field, to say the least, so it's not surprising that a fringe player like Almonte is about to get regular playing time, particularly after a career year (at least to date). Playing Almonte is not a bad idea, given the available options.
Maybe Almonte is about to break out and become a bona fide starter. However, the odds are against that. Raul Ibanez is the only outfielder I can think of in the past 25 years that emerged as a pleasant surprise from the M's farm system, and he blossomed with the Royals, not the Mariners. The only surprise from Almonte last year was 11 home runs in 396 PCL at-bats - a league that tends to favor hitters, by the way. That power surge, especially in such a short span in a hitter's league, shouldn't overwrite years of data and scouting reports, at least not yet.
Overall, Almonte's skills still scream outfield depth much more than leadoff center fielder. Maybe he is more, but expecting it isn't a smart gamble.