Lloyd McClendon's love affair with Abraham Almonte is starting to fade, finally. After approximately 10,000 starts in a row at the leadoff spot, Almonte has been both benched and subsequently relegated to the bottom spot in the order. It's a move long overdue.
I understand why McClendon has tried to force the issue with Almonte. He's an infectious player when things are going well, causing havoc on the basepaths, driving balls in the gaps, and generally providing that spark to the team that managers love. Chop, chop. It's all the things I discussed when I expressed concern that Lloyd was forcing something that wasn't there back in March, before the games even counted.
We all want Almonte to be good, obviously. When we discussed the high level of variability this team could have, Almonte was one of those guys who could easily boom or bust - his solid performance in his 2013 audition looked nice over the course of an entire season. But this version of Almonte, tripping over himself in the outfield, watching pitches down the middle go by and whiffing at even more pitches in the same location just isn't cutting it. If you missed Michael's piece on Almonte last week, it's very much worth your time. The plate vision isn't there. The inexperience in center is showing, costing the Mariners critical runs last night.
Though Almonte's raw athleticism has been able to mask many of his misgivings in center field, he just isn't hitting enough to justify a spot in the lineup anymore, let alone at the top of the order, or even at the bottom. The constant response to suggesting Almonte gets benched is "the Mariners don't have anyone better," and that's not true. They do have somebody better, one who's getting half the plate appearances Almonte is. It's an old friend.
We know what Michael Saunders is at this point, probably. While there's still some hints of upside in there, it seems fairly likely that Saunders is going to be the same guy he's been for the past couple of years -- league average hitter, plus defender in the corners, slightly minus in center field. All of this equates to around a 1 or 2 win player. It's nothing impressive. But simply switching the roles of Saunders and Almonte seems like a quick and easy win to improve this roster, even if it's by a marginal amount.
Almonte, a switch-hitter, has hit LHP better than RHP this year, but in the past has shown opposite splits, having far more success as a left-handed hitter. So shifting to yet another left-handed bat doesn't appear to be that detrimental, as Saunders himself hasn't shown massive LH/RH split deficiencies in the past two seasons. Either way, Almonte is mired in such a bad slide that further examination of splits might be overthinking it.
Almonte, despite his previously mentioned defensive mistakes, is still a good defender. Though his DRS and UZR are quite positive early on, his negative sample from last year balances things out a bit, and he looks around average in combination. We're still dealing with minuscule sample sizes for defensive metrics here, so it might not even be mentioning. We're left to trust our biased, untrained eyes, and Almonte looks like a very fast person who has not played center field for very long. I'm unconvinced that he'll be significantly better than Saunders in center field by the time the sample grows large enough to make a conclusion, though it's difficult to project how much Almonte will improve just from experience.
Either way, Saunders is clearly a better hitter at this point, and while Almonte might be a better defender, he is definitely a better baserunner. Almonte has played in 26 games and Saunders in 23, but Almonte has twice as many plate appearances. The simple solution? Flip the roles. Give Saunders more starts, and minimize Almonte's contributions to the things he does well, which is most definitely not hitting.
It's just time for the Mariners to explore other options. If this means a lot of Saunders in center and Cole Gillespie in right, so be it. If it means Saunders hits leadoff, fine. I think most of us understand at this point that asking Lloyd McClendon to put his best hitters at the top of the order is a losing battle. Stefen Romero has hit 2nd twice in the past three games. It's not a theory he subscribes to, and he likes prototypical leadoff hitters. Except, apparently, ones that can get on base. Or hit. But Michael Saunders is reasonably speedy, and Lloyd's recent usage of him at leadoff twice indicates that he has at least some level of trust in that role.
Many of us really wanted the Abraham Almonte experience to work out. It hasn't, but that doesn't damn him to AAA or strike a death blow on his career. It's possible Almonte just can't see the ball right now, but it's also possible this is just who he is, a guy who will cap out as a 4th outfielder. But for now, a bad thing is getting worse, and penciling Almonte's name in the lineup every day has felt like a wasted roster spot for weeks. The Mariners did a poor job acquiring the outfield depth they desperately needed this offseason, and they're left with no other choice but to give Cole Gillespie an extended look to see what he can do. At this point, he's earned it just as much, if not more, than Almonte. In the meantime, free Condor. He may not be an impact player, but he's better. Isn't that what the Mariners should want this early in the season?
What are your thoughts on simply flipping Almonte and Saunders' roles?