In 17 Cactus League games, the Mariners have used five leadoff hitters. One has caught the attention of first-year manager Lloyd McClendon.
Center fielder Abraham Almonte, owner of a .133 batting average (4-of-30) and .212 on-base percentage in 10 games, is making a push to be an opening day starter.
Almonte wasn’t in the lineup for Thursday afternoon’s game against the Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields. But that was out of the norm.
Almonte has hit leadoff nine times, most on the team. He was in that spot again Wednesday night against the Cubs and went 1-for-5 with a walk and 10th-inning single that sparked Seattle’s 8-7 win. Almonte scored the deciding run when infielder Ty Kelly launched a fastball over the left fielder’s head.
“I like what (Almonte) brings to the table,” McClendon told seattlemariners.mlb.com. “His numbers don’t show it right now, but he’s made consistent contact, he hasn’t struck out a lot, he brings speed from both sides of the plate. He can bunt, he can run down balls in center. He’s in the mix. I’m not guaranteeing anything, but I like what I see.”
Corey Hart, who missed the last four games with forearm tenderness and a stiff lower back, is expected to start the season in right field after missing all of 2013 recovering from microfracture surgery to both knees. Dustin Ackley, a converted second baseman, is having a torrid spring — he entered Thursday hitting .464 (13-of-28) — and has left field all but clinched.
Neither are considered above-average defensive players, which, one could argue, intensifies the need for a speedy center fielder like Almonte.
“(He’s) done a nice job,” McClendon told ESPN.com’s Jim Caple. “He’s moving well in the outfield, moving well on defense. He’s throwing good, running good.”
At 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, the 24-year-old from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic might be the Mariners’ best option to improve an outfield defense that last season was the worst in the major leagues. According to FanGraphs.com, Mariners outfielders in 2013 posted a -58.5 UZR (an advanced stat designed to measure how many runs a player’s range saves/costs his team).
In laymen’s terms, the Mariners were slow. And it cost them.
“It can’t be any worse than it was last year,” McClendon said Saturday. “We had a horrible defensive outfield last year.”
It wasn’t as slow after Almonte made his major league debut Aug. 30, 2013 against the Astros. He was productive in his subsequent 25 games, going (.264/.313/.403) in 72 at-bats. He’s also a switch-hitter, which gives balance to the Mariners’ left-handed heavy lineup.
If Almonte’s bat doesn’t prove ready for major league pitching, the Mariners have other options. Veteran Endy Chavez, 36, is a switch-hitter. He started Thursday against Arizona. Outfielder James Jones made his first appearance in the leadoff spot Tuesday, but he appears a few years from ready. Ackley and Brad Miller have hit leadoff, though both create an imbalance.
When facing a left-handed pitcher, it isn’t ideal to have three left-handed hitters (Ackley/Miller, Seager, Cano) at the top of the lineup.
Utilityman Willie Bloomquist hits right-handed, but he hasn’t seen time at leadoff.
Then there’s Almonte, a switch-hitter who might be the Mariners best option.
Walker throws a 25-pitch bullpen
Pitcher Taijuan Walker returned to the mound Thursday morning for his first bullpen session since the Mariners shut him down Feb. 28 because of bursitis in his throwing shoulder.
With no media present — McClendon said he didn’t want a “sideshow” — Walker threw 25 pitches, all fastballs, then afterward said he felt good.
“I have a big smile on my face,” Walker told reporters. “It felt good. About the last 10 pitches or so, I got after it, and it felt really good.”
Walker, 21, isn’t expected to return to the Mariners starting rotation until mid-April, at the earliest. According to The News Tribune, Walker will play catch Friday, then throw a 40-pitch bullpen over the weekend, which will include breaking balls.