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What next for the Mariners in center?

By Shannon Drayer

HOUSTON – Abraham Almonte has the day off after two errors in the field and another O-fer in the box score Friday. It has been a tough go for Almonte, who has seen his average dip below .200 and leads baseball in strikeouts. When is enough enough?

It has taken almost a month to see a benching, and this has the looks of something more permanent rather than just a day to watch a ballgame.

“That’s why he’s sitting, because its not working. It’s that simple,” manager Lloyd McClendon said before Saturday’s game against the Astros. “I don’t try to sugarcoat anything. He’s not playing because he’s not producing. He’s not playing up to his capabilities.”

Strong words from someone who has heavily endorsed Almonte almost from Day 1 of spring training. A huge commitment was made to helping him learn at the major league level, something that is not easy for any hitter, let alone a leadoff hitter.

Almonte had just 82 plate appearances at the big league level coming into this year and played in just 94 games at Triple-A. If the Mariners were going to put him in that position – jumping him to the big leagues and putting him in a tough spot rather than lower in the order or picking their spots – then they had to have his back through some of his problems, and McClendon has.

“It’s not easy at this level for any young kid,” he said. “I have been there, I know it can get tough in particular when you are not producing the way you are capable of producing. I’m sure he is not feeling good about things now.”

He shouldn’t be. And he probably shouldn’t be in the position to feel bad about things either. If this is a player the Mariners believe can be of impact for them in the future, at some point the pressure needs to be taken off. It is one thing to not move forward and a completely different thing to slide back. When that happens the best thing for the player is to send him down and let him work on those things. Are we there yet with Almonte?

“I don’t know what that point is. When I know you guys will know,” answered McClendon.

This should be an easy call but it is not just McClendon’s. I would guess that roster decisions have made this less than automatic. The 40-man roster is full and there is no obvious replacement on or off of it.

The Mariners need a center fielder and a leadoff hitter and have neither ready in the minor leagues. McClendon likes James Jones, but is rushing him the answer? While every individual is different, it clearly hasn’t worked for Almonte. Jones is riding a ten-game hitting streak right now but has played in just 24 games above Double-A.

A curious move was made last night in Tacoma as Nick Franklin hit leadoff for the first time. Could he be the answer? And at what position? Do the Mariners keep Michael Saunders in center and sacrifice defense in two positions? Saunders is by far the best corner outfielder on the team but has well below average numbers in center. Is the answer to bring up someone like Xavier Avery, who is not hitting but can play a solid center field?

I suspect we will see a move soon.

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