It needed to happen, and now it has. Following the Mariners' 8-7 victory over the Houston Astros, center fielder Abraham Almonted was demoted to Triple-A Tacoma, where he'll be tasked with working on his offensive approach and cleaning up the defensive lapses.
It was a precipitous fall for Almonte, who had struck out in an astounding 35.4 percent of his plate appearances. Almonte, of course, was the Mariners Opening Day center fielder and leadoff hitter—and occupied both of those spots all the way until this past Tuesday, in Texas, when he got his first day off.
Almonte saw one start in New York, and one more in Houston, with him committing two errors to go along with three strikeouts in the latter. Though he came in as a pinch-runner today, that game Friday night appears to have sealed Almonte's fate. So what's next?
After not seeing any time there at all until this week, two of Michael Saunders' last three starts have come in center field. Though, it does not appear as though it be the Condor manning center field going forward as The News Tribune's Bob Dutton reports it will be James Jones getting the call.
James Jones is currently sporting a 124 wRC+ (.313/.382/.450) in his 20 games with the Rainiers, which is about identical to his 2013 line, where he managed a 123 wRC+ in 101 games with Double-A Jackson before a quick four-game look in Tacoma. So, yes, that's right—Jones has all but four games above Double-A. The Mariners have a need and Jones, 25, is being rushed to fill it. But, it's worth noting, Jones isn't being called up for his offense.
By most accounts, the Mariners simply don't want Saunders in center. He's a better all-around player than Almonte, as Scott wrote on yesterday, and with Almonte's miscues, Saunders is likely better on defense too. But still, in the end, Saunders is likely somewhere between a little below average and adequate—and the Mariners are looking for more than that at a premium defensive position.
Here's a quick snippet from Bob Dutton the other day, in a piece on the looming possibility that the club would demote Almonte:
The primary factor against demoting Almonte is finding a viable alternative in center field. Club officials believe Michael Saunders, who started Saturday in center, fits best as a corner outfielder.
Ryan Divish said about the same thing in the pregame blog, quoted below, and then his post today on Almonte's demotion:
McClendon know it’s time to make the move. But there is also some reticence because the staff believes that Michael Saunders isn’t an every day center field from a defensive perspective. They prefer to have him in the corner outfield spots.
I have no gripes here. We've heard many complaints over recent years about the Mariners' apparent disregard for run prevention, a perceived total philosophical 180 to earlier years in Jack Zduriencik's tenure, and here's a move that flies in the face of that. Though, overshadowing it all is the fact that the Mariners went with Almonte as their Opening Day center fielder in place of picking one up, and he's headed to Tacoma before a week has ticked off in May.
Still, that focus on defense is one of the reasons why I wasn't so enthusiastic about the Mariners sending Almonte down, or sitting him for an extended period. I have no defense for McClendon batting him leadoff for the entire month of April, but it's clear now they wanted someone athletic enough to play a true center field. Eventually, the miscues just became too much, and now the team will turn to Jones to man Safeco's vast expanses.
Now, the complaint with the Jones move is that, before they see their next off day on May 15th, the Mariners will play 15 games in 14 days and a bullpen arm may be needed. That's alleviated, somewhat, by them getting a 26th roster spot for the second game Wednesday in Oakland. Still, it's something to watch.
Also worth watching: the back end of this. It'll be interesting to see how Almonte rebounds down in Tacoma. During his last tour of the Pacific Coast League, he put up a monster .314/.403/.491 triple-slash and a 138 wRC+. Even up in Seattle, at least until recently, his approach was decent. He worked a lot of counts, but swung through fastballs in the zone more than anyone I've ever seen.
"I’ve just got to keep working and get my good feeling back at the plate," Almonte told Dutton and other reporters after the game. "Then everything will be OK."