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Countdown to Opening Day – 35
Will this be the season that the Cleveland Indians see all that Abraham Almonte can provide the club at the Major League level?
It may be cliché to say, but this spring camp may be the biggest one of the lengthy professional career for the switch-hitting outfielder Almonte, who joins a crowded outfield mix in Goodyear, Arizona, looking to latch on to a job as a platoon outfielder or bench piece for the reigning American League champions.
Almonte has shown promise during his year and a half in the Cleveland organization, but he also disappointed the team greatly last spring as his failed drug test for performance enhancing substances made a very suspect and thin outfield all the more frail. Thought to be in prime position to claim the starting center field job on the club after a positive half-season trial with the Tribe after coming over in a trade deadline deal with the San Diego Padres for left-handed reliever (and fellow number 35 in Cleveland) Marc Rzepczynski, Almonte’s mistake opened the door for Tyler Naquin, who claimed the center field spot in camp and would go on to a strong season and a third place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.
Almonte missed the first 80 games of the season and, far more damaging, was ineligible for postseason play. There has been plenty of speculation about how things may have played out had he been available off of the bench throughout the playoffs, but especially in extra innings of the seventh game of the World Series when the Indians had to rely on the undeveloped bat of utility man Michael Martinez with the tying run on base, as opposed to bringing someone off of the bench with a capable game-changing swing.
Last season may have been the best chance that Almonte had been given in his lengthy professional career. After signing with the New York Yankees as an amateur free agent in the middle of 2005, he climbed slowly through the club’s farm system to the Double-A level before he was dealt in February of 2013 to the Seattle Mariners for pitcher Shawn Kelley.
A new start with the Mariners seemed to do him well. He started in Double-A and moved up in the middle of May to make his Triple-A debut. He hit .314 with 11 homers and 50 RBI and was able to make it into 25 games for Seattle after being called up at the end of August, hitting .264 with a pair of homers and nine RBI.
He broke camp with the M’s the following season, but hitting just .198 on May 4, he was optioned back to the minors. He remained there until the end of July, when he was traded with a minor league pitcher to San Diego for outfielder Chris Denorfia. He joined the Padres outfield and hit .265 in 32 games with two more homers and seven RBI.
The Padres went shopping in the offseason and the clutter added to the roster pushed Almonte back to Triple-A. He was called up during the second week of May, but hit just .186 in 23 games and was moved back to El Paso in June. He rejoined the club for the final week of July before he was traded to Cleveland.
The roster upheaval for the Indians that came in their early August trade of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to the Atlanta Braves opened the door for Almonte, who joined the club after two quick games with the Columbus Clippers. He performed at a level similar to two previous stints in the Majors, as he hit .264 for the Tribe, but he displayed a surprising amount of extra base capability (nine doubles, five triples, five homers, and 20 RBI in just 51 games for Cleveland) while manning center field every day.
Prior to returning to the Cleveland roster after his suspension last year, he got a quick seven-game run through Triple-A to get him ready for Major League action. Maybe with something to prove, he hit the cover off of the ball for the Clippers, slashing .444/.545/.704 in 33 plate appearances with two doubles, a triple, one home run, and four RBI with two stolen bases. Four of the seven contests were multi-hit games and he hit safely in every outing.
Having worked exclusively as a center fielder for the Indians the season before, his spot was gone in a timeshare between Naquin and veteran Rajai Davis. Almonte became the backup and got a tour of the outfield, spending time in all three spots over the course of the second half of the season. He spent the bulk of his time in the corners, playing in 36 games in right field while spotting the left-handed hitting Lonnie Chisenhall and 34 games in left field, working with the right-handed hitting Davis and Brandon Guyer and switch-hitter Coco Crisp later, as both of the latter players were brought in via trade deadline moves to bolster the roster in advance of possible postseason action.
Almonte appeared in just ten innings over two games in his more familiar center field, with time being devoted to Naquin and Davis in a platoon there.
In his half-season of action for Cleveland, Almonte appeared in 67 games, hitting .264 with a .294 on-base percentage and .401 slugging. His power changed, compared to the previous season, as he had 20 doubles in his 194 plate appearances, but had just one triple and one homer with 22 runs batted in. His strikeout rate jumped nearly 5% while his walk rate dropped just over 4% from his previous numbers with the Indians.
Now, Almonte may not even be in full control of his destiny with Cleveland.
He has shown flashes of being a quality piece for the roster, given his ability to play all three outfield spots, hit for a steady average, provide some pop, and utilize his speed effectively (he is a perfect 14-for-14 with the Indians stealing bases and 20-for-24 in his MLB career). But now, he has to contend with Naquin, Chisenhall, and Guyer in the outfield picture, the hopeful return of a healthy Michael Brantley to left field, and the addition of a formerly successful Major League outfielder in Austin Jackson on a minor league contract. Other options in spring camp, including utility guys Erik Gonzalez, Yandy Diaz, and the above-mentioned Martinez, as well as free agent additions Chris Colabello and Daniel Robertson, and top minor league outfielders Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen will fight for playing time in the coming month as manager Terry Francona and his coaching staff look to find the best fit for the team moving into the 2017 regular season.
It will be a big spring for the 27-year-old Almonte, one in which he will have to do all that he can to beat out the competition to head north with the team come the end of March. He has shown that he has the skills to belong, but now those skills will be put to the test against a long list of challengers to join the defending AL champions. With a minor league option still remaining, Almonte is at risk of logging more time at the Triple-A level if he cannot prove worthy during this spring’s tryout.
Other notable 35’s in Indians history: Ken Keltner (1937), Pedro Ramos (1963-64), Stan Williams (1967-69), Gaylord Perry (1972), Phil Niekro (1986-87), Wayne Kirby (1992-96), Enrique Wilson (1997-2000)
Photo: Rob Tringali/Getty Images