With gaffes and gems, Mariners’ Abraham Almonte is player to watch
Almonte is a whirlwind who combines power and speed.
Seattle Times columnist
Oakland @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m., ROOT Sports
Birthplace: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
MLB debut: Aug. 30, 2013
Abraham Almonte likes to listen to Christian music before games — “slow, really calm music,’’ he said with a laugh. “I don’t know how I get that crazy.”
The Almonte “craziness”, with all its benefits and occasional pitfalls, has become one of the most riveting elements of this young Mariners season. And it is also providing an instructive window into the philosophy and style of manager Lloyd McClendon.
Almonte, on the baseball field, is a whirlwind. Brad Miller remembers watching him in spring training last year when, on occasion, he was called up from minor-league camp. Almonte at that point was a virtual unknown; his only slight claim for recognition was having been part of what seemed a minor trade with the Yankees for reliever Shawn Kelley, just before spring training.
“He’d run and hustle, and I said: ‘Who is this guy? He’s electric,’ ’’ Miller recalled.
That electricity manifested itself quickly, as Almonte, assigned to Class AA Jackson with Miller, began to make himself known.
“He really wasn’t even in the mix,’’ Miller said. “I remember he hit for the cycle one game and wasn’t even in the lineup the next day. But he came into a new organization and just wowed everyone from Day One. He’s earned everything he’s gotten.”
Almonte leapt quickly from Jackson to Tacoma, where he became the Rainiers’ Most Valuable Player. That earned a 25-game late-season audition with the Mariners, and first crack at the center field and leadoff jobs this season despite what seemed to be a lackluster spring.
The Almonte package has already revealed its strengths, the skill set that led his former Tacoma manager, John Stearns, to predict an All-Star career. Almonte combines power and speed, covers considerable ground in the outfield, and has a strong throwing arm. Any discussion of Almonte quickly alludes to the energy he adds to the ballclub.
“When he’s in there, good things happen,’’ Miller said.
But Almonte has also shown that the Mariners will have to put up with some gaffes, which often seem to be borne of exuberance. That includes two occasions in which he was thrown out on ill-advised attempts to take an extra base, and another in which he let a ball get by him in effort to make a circus catch.
Almonte sees his hard-driving play as part of his style, which is to be aggressive and bring that out in teammates.
“It’s kind of normal to me,’’ he said. “I like to enjoy what I do. I like to play hard and the right way. When others see it, they’re going to get some energy from that. If I don’t play like that, I don’t feel good. I like to be moving all the time.”
McClendon clearly believes the trade-off is worth it, and that Almonte will eventually learn to harness the reckless elements of his game. The Dodgers are going through something similar with Yasiel Puig.
“He’s a very intelligent young man,’’ McClendon said. “He picks things up really quick. He’s no different than any other rookie on any other team. They’re going to make mistakes. But I love his energy, and obviously the intangibles he brings to the table. It makes us a better team.”
McClendon seems to have a touch of Pete Carroll in expressing his willingness to let players push the limits. Carroll’s handling of Golden Tate comes to mind. From the missteps and growing pains, and the nurturing of Carroll and others, emerged a Seahawks catalyst.
McClendon was asked Wednesday why he was comfortable giving Almonte the freedom to make decisions and be aggressive.
“I never said I was comfortable, but it’s a necessary evil,’’ he said with a smile. “The only way he’s going to be an instinctive player is to rely on his own talents. I liken it a lot to when I used to go see my son play high-school baseball. There’s two outs and it’s 3-0 on the hitter and the coach is giving signs with nobody on base. I’m like, ‘What the hell? Just let the kids play.’
“Sometimes we become too instructive as coaches, and we actually get in the players’ way. I’m just trying to stay out of their way. Let them play, let them figure it out. And if he’s good, he’ll figure it out.”
That can be a particularly valuable approach in a six-month season full of ups and downs, though every manager faces the question of how far to take their patience. McClendon said his philosophy has evolved over time.
“I was a young manager in Pittsburgh, and one of the things I probably didn’t realize is it’s a players’ game,’’ he said. “My days of playing the game were over. I was fairly young and probably still thought I could play. I wasn’t worth a damn to start with, but I probably still thought I could play. I probably got in their way a little bit.”
McClendon dips into his memory bank when asked for a player whom Almonte reminds him of — Ron LeFlore, a speedy outfielder in the 1970s and ’80s with the Tigers, Expos and White Sox who hit 16 homers and 30 doubles one year, and stole 97 bases in another.
“He was a very powerful runner, good power to all fields, a slashing kind of guy that could create runs, produce runs,’’ McClendon said. “I think he’s going to be that type of guy.”
Watching Almonte attempt to get there is never going to be dull.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146
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Larry Stone gives his take on the local and national sports scene.