As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the players who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.
Countdown to Opening Day – 35 days
After a breakout second half to the 2015 season, outfielder Abraham Almonte had a good chance to crack Cleveland’s Opening Day starting lineup this year and the opportunity to become fixture with the team.
Instead, the 26-year-old, who is already with his fourth organization since 2005, will have his quest to become an everyday outfielder put on hold for at least half a season. Almonte, on Friday, was suspended 80 games for violating Major League Baseball’s substance-abuse policy. With that, a golden opportunity was lost.
The Indians are hurting in the outfield. Cleveland had outfield issues, even when fully healthy. Left fielder and one of the team’s leaders, Michael Brantley, just so happens to be expected to miss the first month of this year’s campaign following offseason surgery. That already made the job of manager Terry Francona all the more difficult when it comes to filling out a threesome to man the grass on April 4 at Progressive Field.
Almonte, who until last August barely cracked a radar at the MLB level, was penciled in to be one of Francona’s outfielders and was the likely candidate to play center field. The likely scenario had veteran journeyman and free agent acquisition Rajai Davis in left field with converted third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall in right. Now the outfield is in real flux.
Davis now becomes a candidate to move to center in Almonte’s stead. It kicks the door wide open for a whole host of other outfielders to see their names on Francona’s Opening Day lineup card.
Because Chisenhall has been so up and down the last few years and because Almonte keeping up his surge from last year’s final two months was not a given, the Tribe had invited a whole host of outfielders to spring training on minor league contracts. Now, at least one of those guys could be in the starting lineup in five weeks while another could become Cleveland’s fourth and backup outfielder, rather than seeing his walking papers or a visit to Triple-A Columbus.
Names like Will Venable, who did hit 20-plus homers in 2013, and Michael Choice could well turn minor league contracts into major league opportunities. In-house prospects like 2012 first round pick Tyler Naquin and 2014 trade acquisition Zach Walters could finally have their chances to shine at the big league level.
None of those names are overly inspiring, nor do they go a long way, or any way, to calm the fears of Indians fans that issues in the outfield may sabotage an otherwise promising 2016 season, especially early on.
This is why there was so much hope for Almonte. The little-known prospect was added to the club on July 31 a season ago in a minor deal that saw Cleveland send left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski to the San Diego Padres. Little was thought of the move.
However, when the Indians jettisoned the albatross contracts of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn off to Atlanta in a surprising August trade, it opened up roster spots and opportunities in the outfield.
Almonte seized that opportunity by the horns, impressing his bosses and making a name for himself. In 51 games, he showed some power with five home runs and 20 RBI. He also flashed some speed with five triples and six steals. His .264 batting average, while not great, was decent. In two months Almonte had proven himself to be a guy who could mix both power and speed in a lineup that needed his kind of energy. In a short time, he did enough to be virtually guaranteed an Opening Day roster spot this year and with a good chance to start in lieu of Brantley.
It was a major coup for a guy who really had not been able to find any place in the big leagues with the Padres, or the Mariners and Yankees before that. He had never before shown much of anything in his limited Major League chances. He really wasn’t doing much of anything special in the bush leagues for that matter, either. That a team was willing to move an outfielder in a straight-up deal for a left-handed relief specialist says a lot in terms of how low the expectations were that Almonte would figure things out in the big leagues.
However, something seemed to click once Almonte became an everyday member of Cleveland’s lineup in August. The prevailing idea was perhaps the Dominican Republic native was finally coming into his own. The age of 26 is around the average time that a player will typically start to really hit his stride in the majors. Almonte hitting his stride in a season with big outfield question marks would have been huge for the Tribe.
Now the Indians are stuck trying to replace a player that they seemed to be highly counting on. A failed PED test has thrown water on the fire Almonte caught last year and puts more of a damper on Cleveland’s outfield hopes until Brantley can get back.
Almonte is now lost for at least half the year. If you factor in a minor league assignment once he becomes eligible in order to get back into game shape, then he could be gone from the Major League club for closer to 100 games. That puts him in position to return around the time that he started making his mark a year ago. By then, the fate of the 2016 Tribe will be clearer. It will be known if he is coming back to help a squad with real playoff chances or coming back to prove himself in another lost season, a la 2015.
The perfect scenario for Almonte and the team is that an outfielder or two step up enough so that the positions are not a complete disaster for the Tribe. In that versions, the outfield does not drag down Cleveland’s postseason prospects and then Almonte comes back and again infuses a strong presence into the lineup in the middle of a playoff chase.
At any rate, Almonte’s off-field error was costly. With 35 days until the season opens, there are more questions in the outfield than ever before. It truly is an opportunity lost for a young player who had earned a shot to finally shine.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images