HOUSTON — Struggling outfielder Abraham Almonte dodged a possible demotion Saturday when the Mariners had to clear roster space to accommodate Hisashi Iwakuma’s return from the disabled list.
The Mariners chose to option reliever Lucas Luetge to Triple-A Tacoma despite using six relievers in Friday’s 5-4 loss to the Astros in 11 innings. Iwakuma started Saturday’s game at Minute Maid Park.
“Our bullpen is fine,” manager Lloyd McClendon said in explaining the move prior to Saturday’s game. “Nobody was really over-taxed. In fact, they needed work.”
While Almonte held his roster spot, he returned to the bench after going hitless in three at-bats Friday dropped his average below at Mendoza Line at .198 with a .248 on-base percentage.
Almonte also leads the majors with 40 strikeouts (in 106 at-bats).
Those difficulties, he believes, can be traced to his batting stance; specifically head movement on his swing.
“I just keep working hard and keep believing I can do it,” he said. “That’s all I can do. I just believe every at-bat, every chance I get, that I’m going to prove I can do it.”
So far, though, the results keep trending down. Almonte entered Saturday with only four hits in his last 37 at-bats. Even worse, perhaps, his defense shows slippage: He had two errors in Friday’s loss.
“That’s why he’s sitting,” McClendon said. “Because it’s not working. It’s that simple. I don’t try to sugarcoat anything. He’s not playing because he’s not producing. He’s not playing up to his capabilities.
“There are two ways you can do it. You can play him, or you can bench him.”
It also begs the question: How long can the Mariners continue to carry Almonte on their roster? At what point does a remedial tour at Tacoma become a better option?
“I don’t know what that point is,” McClendon said. “When I know, you guys will know.”
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.
Saunders is making a case, though. He went two for five in Saturday’s victory; and with six hits in 13 at-bats over the last three games, his average is up to .250.
The other primary possibility is James Jones, who is batting .313 in 20 games at Tacoma. He got a brief look last month when the schedule permitted the Mariners to carry just four starting pitchers.
Jones has only limited experience above Double-A, but he is 25 and flashed potential in an extended look in spring training. McClendon believes Jones projects as a leadoff hitter and could be an impact defensive player.
“I like him,” he said when Jones was optioned to Tacoma on April 19. “I said this before, I don’t think he’s going to knock on the door. I think he’s going to tear the door down when he’s ready.”