In a recent Email Inbox, Cleveland Indians beat reporter Jordan Bastian was asked about the possibility of Abraham Almonte starting the season in Triple-A. Almonte does in fact have a minor league option left, meaning this has become a very real possibility. This is troubling news for two, maybe three reasons. The biggest issue — the derailment of the Almonte Hype Train before it even leaves the station.
Almonte is currently locked in a battle with Austin Jackson for the final outfielder spot. According to Bastian and common sense, three spots are filled by Tyler Naquin, Brandon Guyer, and Lonnie Chisenhall. With the growing chance that Michael Brantley might actually be healthy, this makes the margin razor thin for Almonte to even make the team. Compounding all this is Jackson having an opt out clause in his contract that expires this Sunday. If he reads the tea leaves and believes he won't make the team, that makes the job effectively Almonte's. It also loses the Tribe some versatility and an extra chance that one of these guys turns out great. Really the ball is in Jackson's court simply because Cleveland wants to keep its options open and can afford to send Almonte down.
If we went off solely Spring Training stats, this wouldn't be a hard decision to make. While they're basically tied in OPS (Jackson has the lead at .1000 to .998), Almonte has shown growth in his eye at the plate. He's walked five times against seven strikeouts, whereas Jackson has no walks. He's also batted 15 fewer times but has the same batting average at .333. These are Arizona numbers, though. They have no bearing on what will happen in April.
It's nice to see that Almonte has drawn nearly as many walks this month as he did in half a season's games last year, but it remains to be seen whether it translates to when the games are real. Had Jackson looked slowed by the surgery he got last year the Indians might have an easier decision to make.
Then there's the age factor. Throwing it out, Jackson and Almonte are nearly statistical mirror images of each other. Here's a brief graph showing their wOBA the last several years.
Both suffered abbreviated seasons in 2016, one for injury and the other for banned substances. Here's two more, the first showing walk rate, the second showing isolated power.
So it's a bit of a trade off in a sense. You could convince yourself that Almonte was pressing when he finally returned last year, trying to prove he belonged and trying to do too much, thus he struck out at a better than 5/1 clip against his walks. If that’s the real Almonte, you’d go with him since he’s shown more power and is younger. Even if the above is what real life is, I fee like if you had to choose one you go with the one who's four years younger and still has some possibility to him. Known quantities are nice and all, but the known quantity of Jackson at this point in his is middling. He’s not exactly primed for breakout.
Almonte being younger may play against him, though. As said before, the team probably wants to maintain versatility and an extra roll of the dice with whether Jackson can reassume the level of play he’s showed in the past. I prefer Almonte because he's got nothing more to prove in the minors and his ceiling is higher merely by dint of his being 25 years old. If we are to see the walk tendencies in Arizona as being anything resembling real, he instantly becomes a better long-term choice. And he has better facial hair. With them not having Kipnis on the field for a few weeks, this is vital. Neither is going to be a gamebreaker of course, I guess I’m just a sucker for the unknown.
Almonte is versatile, too. He can play two positions whereas Jackson has all of 109.2 of his 7689.2 innings spent in a corner outfield spot. Almonte is also a switch hitter, even if it's barely league average switch-hitting. The Indians need a movable part as much as they need a guy who can bat righty and swap with Naquin. Jackson is exactly that second thing. Almonte is more than that, being able to spell really any outfielder and grow in the role. He could be a super utility outfielder rather than just seeing lefties, which you’d think a team with the Indians low resources could use much more. It does make sense they want to see what Jackson can do, though.
Derailed is the wrong way to describe this hype train. Delayed, rerouted, engineer got drunk last night, one of these more accurately describes what's going on here.
Jackson does seem to have come back from knee surgery pretty well, and the Indians are looking for a part-time guy anyway. Almonte might be able to be more than that, which is why this is a bit disappointing it’s so close. All he’s done is hit in Arizona. But the Tribe has an opportunity to see what a vet has left, while not using up service time from someone who might still grow, and could use the work on his walk game some.
Almonte isn’t in the driver’s seat towards a big league role, but he’s not out of the car (engine?) yet. All he can do is perform, and hope the Tribe brass look his way.