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Fueling up the Abe Almonte hype train

It’s about that time, and it’s time for the Indians to stumble into a truly solid center fielder.

MLB: Spring Training-Cleveland Indians at Oakland Athletics Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

I usually try to lay off writing about the same player more than once or so a month so as to not be repetitive and avoid the same points. But after a gentle nudge from a reader during Thursday's Reddit AMA that shot a bolt of enthusiasm through me, I decided it's time to start shoveling coal into the Abraham Almonte Hype Train a bit earlier than planned.

The Cleveland Indians outfielder hasn't drawn the same kind of attention he did this time last year since he has yet to break any juice related rules, but Tribe fans should be excited about the prospect of Almonte getting a chance to truly prove himself. The 2017 season could well be a special year for the outfielder.

Glancing at his career numbers, or even just his Cleveland numbers, is not the best way to get excited about Almonte. When a guy hits .264/.308/.428 over 118 games with your team, any fan would be right to be less than thrilled. It’s barely anything. His career numbers are even worse (.249/.296/.384), but he did have to play in Petco Park and Safeco Field to start his career. Between their natural hit killing capabilities and his not getting any consistent play time, there was no chance for Almonte to get comfortable and flourish. Cleveland is the first place he’s had a home and even that has been interrupted. That hint of above average offense with Cleveland in 2015 (105 OPS+) and showing some talent in the outfield at a couple different positions is nice an certainly something to build on, but it can get lost in the shuffle of an insane pitching staff and signing a mammoth slugger. We’re not looking for Mike Trout here though, just a very good major league player. Almonte could be that.

I've written before about how to this point Almonte profiles as a younger Rajai Davis minus the damage on the basepaths, and with a better glove. But that is a bit of a reduction of what he brings. Aside from being graded positively on defense, he also happens to be a decade younger than Davis. While 27 is hardly an age one can get overly excited about a player morphing into something amazing, it's certainly better than 38.

Adding to that, we've seen breakout seasons from other players later in their career. Jose Bautista comes first to mind as this type of player. His first four years in the majors he logged a 95 OPS+, though he had a decent K/BB ratio. He became one of the best players in baseball through one simple trick that made pitchers hate him. Baseball is a game of tiny adjustments making big differences, but also of being comfortable. That’s what makes Almonte so interesting, even if he almost definitely won’t make that kind of leap. But we don’t want sudden superstar, just solid regular.

Admittedly, he was not as good in 2016 as he was when he came to Cleveland in 2015, which works to belie the argument I just made. No adjustments were to be found that hinted at becoming suddenly solid at the plate. Much of that was a total inability to take a walk, leading to a 5-1 strikeout to walk ratio. It was not pretty. While it does seem a bit unfair to judge him for coming into midseason cold and pressed into duty in a mediocre on its best day offense, the facts remain the facts. There are other, gooder facts though. For instance, his hard hit ball rate topped 30.3% according to FanGraphs, three percent better than the year prior, while his line drive rate was a career high 21.4%. This led to a higher BABIP at .331 (career .314) and a corresponding slight batting average bump. But that walk rate, ugh. That is what must be watched to know whether this is a new Almonte.

The key to any level of hype surrounding Almonte being realized is unsurprising. it's plate discipline. He needs to get back to something like he was when fresh to Cleveland. He showed the wrong trend in 2016, experiencing a peak in swings out of the zone (33% of pitches compared to a career 29%), swing rate (51.8%, compared to 46.6% career) and only a middling 78% contact rate. I do think he was pressing some when he came back from his suspension in order to prove himself, but that theory will be proven true or false very soon in 2017. He has yet to draw a walk this spring in nine at-bats, but this means essentially nothing. I have yet to actually see him play, so most supposition must wait till April.

Best case scenario, Almonte turns into a sort of strikeout-prone Denard Span. Or he starts pulling the ball more or moves some of his 47 percent ground ball rate into his 30% fly ball rate , bumps his home run rate a smidge while maintaining the walk rate he showed in 2015, and is a poor man's Odubel Herrera. Best case isn’t most realistic case, but he could turn into a 2-ish win player. Even that is a bullish viewpoint, especially if he only gets about 400 at-bats, but he was a 1 win player by fWAR in 2015 over 82 games, and BRef gave him 1.1 WAR in just his 51 games with the Indians. It extrapolates comfortably, especially if you want to decide which reality you believe in. And isn’t that the whole point of a hype train? Consistent performance like that is expecting a lot out of Almonte, but he should have something to prove even now, since he didn’t get to help with the 14 game win streak and wasn’t much help in the postseason.

If some things Brantley and Naquin related go wrong, he is going to be increasingly important. Part hope, part projecting improvement, all unabashed excitement. That’s the entire basis of any hype train, this is no different. Book your tickets now.