PEORIA, Ariz. -- Asked about the Mariners' outfield defense Saturday morning, new Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon said, “It can’t be any worse than it was last year. We had a horrible defensive outfield last year.”
The Tigers' hitting coach in 2013, McClendon wasn't present to see the outfield firsthand every day last season, but his assessment isn't inaccurate.
The Mariners' outfield defense was bad, thanks in part to chronically ailing Franklin Gutierrez spending more time on rehab assignments than in the majors, plus the use of 41-year-old Raul Ibanez in left field, defensively challenged Michael Morse in right and former second baseman Dustin Ackley suddenly shifted to center field. Michael Saunders, who sprained his shoulder early in the season, had trouble, as well.
If the outfield can’t be worse, the question is will it -- as well as the offense -- be better? McClendon says he has options to make it better. Among those are Corey Hart, out all last season following knee surgery, whom the Mariners hope can play right field with some regularity. They have moved Ackley to left field. Saunders is back, as well.
The most intriguing option, however, is 24-year-old center fielder Abraham Almonte, who is seeing a lot of action at the top of the order.
“Almonte’s done a nice job. He’s moving well in the outfield, moving well on defense," McClendon said. “He’s throwing good, running good. He hasn't been successful in his bunt attempts quite yet, but that’s still a work in progress. I like what I see to this point."
Originally signed as a second baseman at age 16 by the Yankees, Almonte has played eight pro seasons, making his major league debut with Seattle at the end of August last year. “I feel way more comfortable in center than I did in the infield," Almonte said. “I feel like I’m home in the outfield."
A switch-hitter, Almonte batted .300 with a .394 on-base percentage, 15 home runs and 26 steals between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013, then hit .264 with two home runs in 25 games with the Mariners. He also received the team’s minor league Heart and Soul award for his play and leadership.
Almonte says his improvement has come with experience. He also is happy to be in the same clubhouse as Robinson Cano, whom he got to know and admire when both were in the Yankees' organization.
“I learned patience and to work hard from him," Almonte said. “He was always pushing patience. He always looked like he was under control in everything, no matter the situation. No matter if he had two strikes, he always looked patient. I like that. I like that look of control in everything. Like the game is slow."
It’s still early, but Almonte has played almost every day this spring and is hitting .105 with a home run and two walks. His speed and right-handed bat against lefties are a big plus with a team in need of both.
“I like the total package," McClendon said. “He’s a switch-hitter who gives you speed on the bases. He can score from first. He has some pop. And he’s done a nice job in the outfield. You can see the improvement in his movement laterally. The total package is pretty good. He’s a very versatile young man. I like everything about him so far."