First up in the Mariners’ search for a leadoff hitter is rookie outfielder Abraham Almonte, who drew the duty Thursday in Seattle's Cactus League opener against San Diego.
“He’s an interesting guy,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He’s a switch-hitter. He has tremendous speed, and the ability to bunt. Steal bases; (go) first to home. That’s what you’re looking for in a leadoff guy.
“He fits the bill. He gets the opportunity today.”
Almonte, 24, put much of that on display in a 7-1 victory at Peoria Stadium. He drew two walks in three plate appearances, including one to start a two-run first inning.
It was all familiar.
“When I used to be with the Yankees (system) earlier in my career,” he said, “I used to lead off all of the time. I’m just trying to show what I’ve got.”
Almonte also stole a base before exiting after the fifth inning.
And, yes, McClendon noticed, saying: “Anytime you get on base twice, score a run and steal a base, you’ve done a pretty good job in the leadoff spot.”
McClendon identified shortstop Nick Franklin and outfielders Xavier Avery, Michael Saunders and Dustin Ackley as other possible leadoff candidates.
“We have four weeks,” McClendon said, “to figure it out.”
Almonte looms, however, as a preferred choice because he better balances the lineup by providing a righty bat (against left-handed pitchers) ahead of two left-handed hitters Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano.
Avery, Saunders and Ackley are left-handed hitters. So, too, is shortstop Brad Miller, who served as the club’s primary leadoff hitter last season after arriving in late June from Tacoma.
That leaves the Mariners with a choice between Almonte and Franklin, who is also a switch-hitter, if they want to avoid a lineup that starts with three left-handed hitters.
Both players face keen spring battles for starting jobs, but Almonte offers the flexibility of being able to play all three outfield positions and is a good bet, at least at this point, to break camp on the 25-man roster.
In contrast, Franklin is locked in a one-on-one battle with Miller to be the starting shortstop with the loser likely heading to Class AAA Tacoma.
Almonte batted .264 with a .313 on-base percentage last season over 25 games in his big-league debut, including two games as a leadoff hitter, following his Aug. 30 promotion from Tacoma.
“It helped me a lot (to get that experience),” he said. “You feel more comfortable. You feel more a part of the team. You feel more like you’re in the family.”
Prior to joining the Mariners, Almonte posted a .403 on-base percentage while batting .314 with 11 homers and 50 RBIs in 94 games for the Rainiers after opening the season at Class AA Jackson.
That OBP is exactly what any club wants from its leadoff hitter.
“Sometimes, when you’re leading off,” Almonte said, “you’ve got to change your game. But when you do it a lot, it becomes part of your game. That’s the way I think, and the way I learned how to play the game.”
The Mariners acquired Almonte, who still qualifies as a rookie, just over a year ago (Feb. 13, 2013) from the Yankees for pitcher Shawn Kelley.
Almonte created an immediate impact after arriving and received the organization’s Heart and Soul Award after the season in recognition of his “exemplary play and leadership.”
The Mariners now want to see if he can lead from the top.
The Mariners announced one-year agreements with 11 players before the game, which means everyone on the 40-man roster is under contract.
The final group: pitchers Bobby LaFromboise, Lucas Luetge, Brandon Maurer, Hector Noesi, Stephen Pryor, Erasmo Ramirez and
Taijuan Walker; catcher Jesus Sucre, shortstop Brad Miller, first baseman Jesus Montero and infielder Carlos Triunfel.
Financial terms were not announced, but deals for players not yet eligible for arbitration are rarely for sums significantly more than the Major League minimum of $500,000.