This is going to happen, and we should all focus on being excited about it. Though there's been no official confirmation from Lloyd McClendon nor Jack Zduriencik , and there's an outside chance the Mariners could yet trade for an outfielder, it's hard to envision anyone other than Abraham Almonte trotting out to center field when the Mariners go on defense against the Angels just 23 days from today.
A little more than a year ago, Almonte was brought into the organization as the other end of a trade involving a DFA'd Shawn Kelley. Normally, when you DFA a player, it's because you've exhausted all trade possibilities, declined all offers and instead chosen to throw up your hands in defeat. The Mariners lucked out, and got what at the time was viewed as a little more than nothing—a toolsy and somewhat interesting "little more than nothing" but still just that nonetheless.
And amazingly, that bit part has turned into their starting center fielder.
Though my excitement around these parts with regards to Abe Almonte—a player who reminds me of one of my all-time favorites, Kirby Puckett—may lead you to believe that I'll try to convince you that this is the right move, I won't. I'm just stating what at this point seems to be very obvious.
We're a little more than three weeks from Opening Night, and Michael Saunders—the only viable center field alternative on the roster—has yet to make a spring training start at the position. I suppose it's possible that they know what they have in Saunders, and it's just what McClendon said earlier this spring that the lineups have just worked out that way.
Yeah, I doubt it.
Even today, with split-squad games against the Giants and Dodgers, Michael Saunders gets a spot in right field—with Abraham Almonte and Endy Chavez going on the scorecards as your '8'.
There's something that's been floating back through my mind as of late, particularly with Zduriencik's flat denial on questions of if Ervin Santana would end up a Mariner—the rumblings that, if the Mariners were to acquire a starting pitcher, it would be through trade. The Mariners, of course, have only one truly obvious trade chip—and when they finally fire the Nick Franklin bullet, does anyone believe they can bring back multiple useful pieces?
As Logan outlined Thursday in his piece on a potential swap with Yankees, and others referenced in the comments, if they're looking to add multiple pieces, they're going to be relatively mediocre ones. And at this point, the Mariners can't afford to swap a dollar for four quarters.
So if you're going to get one key piece, it's going to be at either a pitcher or an outfielder. And with the way things have gone—Almonte being the only guy with a shot at the 25-man roster to get a single spring training start at center—you wonder those rumors were true, that they'd planned to use Nick Franklin to get pitching, and not an outfielder, all along. And could it have been because they'd thought they genuinely had something in Almonte all along?
To be generous, or maybe a little more realistic, it has felt as though they wanted to see if Almonte could go out there and, at least, not embarrass himself. It's never wise to trust spring training results as the basis of decision-making, but even a couple dozen games against scrubs and guys who don't care can give you a clearer picture of a individual's skill-set.
And I would say Almonte's skill-set has been on full display, but he hasn't thrown a guy out yet. Though, here's what we have:
But there's one catch to this whole thing, one item that might derail it: those two hits you see up there, the home run and the double, those are the only two hits Abraham Almonte has so far. He's 2-for-19 this spring, and while I'm definitely on the side of spring training results not mattering, you do wonder if this would worry McClendon at some point. Then again, McClendon has said Almonte's been working on his bunting and (*wince*) that may have come at the direction of the skipper.
Of course, the concern with Almonte around these parts and elsewhere has been more focused on defense than offense. After all, he managed to look respectable at the dish in his late call-up last year, posting a 96 wRC+ over 82 plate appearances. I'll let you take this as far in your mind as you want—actually no, don't, don't think too much of this—but that 96 wRC+ is identical what Kyle Seager managed in his 201-PA stint in 2011.
Also, for those less familiar—and around these parts I know that's relatively few at this point—Almonte's time in the minors in 2013 was something to behold. He was good in AA, prior to moving up a level, but once he got to Tacoma he was a monster, posting a .314/.403/.491 triple-slash and 138 wRC+ over a not-easily-dismissible 396 PAs.
And for those wondering how a player like this could come almost out of nowhere to post a season like this, I suggest you familiarize yourself with Almonte's narrative as someone whose overcome serious injury and a hard battle with alcoholism. The News Tribune's TJ Cotterill had an exceptional profile on the matter last year. A quick excerpt:
"I used to drink a lot, but after the surgery I would drink more," Almonte said. "But most of the time after I got drunk, I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that because it wasn’t going to help me in my career. A lot of times I tried to quit, but I never did."
One night, the craving came over him again. He wanted to drink, but he knew he had to resist. That’s when he said God spoke.
"He told me, ‘You see your life? You don’t even have time for your family. It’s necessary for you to have time now for me and your family,’ " Almonte said.
"God told me, ‘I’m going to tell you something.’ Then he told me, ‘I’m the one who hurt your shoulder. It was necessary for you to come to me. Everything that I start I finish and everything I do, I do it right and I am the perfect doctor.’
"I don’t know how that happened, but I couldn’t see myself clearly. After that, I started believing. I said, ‘I am giving everything to you. I am doing everything for you. I’m not going to drink, I’m going to go to church, I’m going to turn my life around.’ "
There have been commenters here, some who have even suffered from the disease themselves, who have said that it can take a couple years to fully get your life and physical wherewithal back on track after beating back alcoholism. Maybe that's what we have with Almonte, and maybe it isn't, but it's worth wondering.
But, alas, I've gotten sidetracked a bit here. This is about Abraham Almonte, and it's likely about his defense. It's funny, sometimes being an old-school manager collides directly with new-school philosophies—and that's just what we have with McClendon and his belief that this team, any team, can't afford to give others more than 27 outs. Just this morning, he had this to say to the Seattle Times' Ryan Divish and other reporters with regards to outfield defense:
"...As far as concerns, it can’t be any worse than it was last year. We had a horrible defensive outfield last year. I think we have options that will make it better this year. That’s all I can tell you at this time. I can’t tell you what’s on my mind and my thought process – that wouldn’t be fair. I will say this, it will be better."
"You need to catch every ball you are supposed to catch. Spectacular plays are a plus. But I just want to make sure we make the outs we are supposed to make."
I don't know about you, but it's hard to envision him saying that and then running Michael Saunders—much more of a natural corner outfielder—out there on a frequent basis. I will say, there are platoon options at play that could knock Almonte out in certain occasions. Then, of course, there's the question of whose playing time Almonte might take (I'd hope for Smoak or Morrison's as opposed to Ackley's), but I'll leave that for you guys to discuss and us to figure out at a later date.
Right now, I'm ready to get out of this Scottsdale hotel room and take in a full day of baseball. And I look forward to seeing Abraham Almonte roam center field against the Dodgers tonight.