PEORIA, Ariz. — With each passing day of spring training, Abraham Almonte moves closer to locking up a spot on the opening-day roster.
By the time the Mariners leave Arizona and head to Los Angeles for the season opener, could Almonte even grab a starting spot?
In Wednesday’s 8-5 loss to the Cleveland Indians at Peoria Stadium, Almonte got another start in center field and was batting at the top the order for manager Lloyd McClendon.
Almonte made his presence known immediately, yanking a leadoff homer to right field to score the first of four runs in the inning.
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“It felt good,” Almonte said. “I got a good pitch and I put a very good swing on it.”
Almonte went 1 for 3 in the game and played flawlessly in center field.
“He just needs to continue to play well,” McClendon said. “He’s done a nice job for us in the leadoff spot. He’s shown some power. He has speed. He’s making an effort to get some bunts down.”
It’s the speed and ability to switch-hit that makes Almonte intriguing. The Mariners were one of the least athletic teams in the American League last season. Almonte brings a level of speed that is lacking. With a day-to-day lineup featuring a plethora of left-handed hitters, Almonte’s ability to turn around and bat from the right side with a lefty on the mound is a plus.
He understands the duties of a leadoff hitter. While Almonte’s on-base percentage in 25 big-league games was just .313, he did put up a .403 OBP in 94 games with Class AAA Tacoma.
“You just have to stay confident and don’t be afraid to go to one or two strikes,” he said. “I don’t change anything. I just go up looking for a good pitch to hit, and if they don’t give it to me, I just take the walk. My goal is to find some way to get on base — hit, walk, bunt or whatever.”
Even at 24 and having played in seven professional seasons, Almonte is still raw in some ways.
He was originally signed as a second baseman by the Yankees. The conversion to the outfield came just a few years ago. While he has the ability to play all three positions, there are still some uncertainties. Admittedly, he struggled with catching balls near the outfield wall, never getting comfortable knowing he might collide with it.
One of outfield coach Andy Van Slyke’s daily drills is to shoot fly balls over the heads of outfielders with a pitching machine, forcing them to turn, retreat and then find the ball. The benefits are showing. A few days ago in Peoria, Almonte made a pair of tough catches on the warning track battling the sun and the wind.
“Those drills we’ve been doing helped,” he said. “I was more comfortable going toward the wall and I didn’t panic.”
The Mariners are taking a long look at Almonte. Expected starter Michael Saunders has yet to play a game in center this spring, playing mostly right field. McClendon said Saunders will move over and start playing games in center eventually. But Almonte’s value will be if he can play center field at a solid level.
The question for the Mariners will be whether they keep Almonte on the team if he doesn’t win a starting spot, or send him to Class AAA Tacoma to continue his development. His versatility could force the Mariners to put him on the team. McClendon could find ways to use him in almost every game.
Stephen Pryor threw a 35-pitch bullpen session. It was his fourth bullpen of the spring and another step in his recovery from surgery to repair a torn latissimus dorsi in his throwing shoulder.
“Every bullpen I’m trying to do a little more effort level-wise,” he said. “I’m just trying to build back up to where I was.”
Pryor was throwing at about 85 percent and his last five pitches at 95 percent effort. He even threw eight breaking balls.
“I threw a couple good ones, and a few bad ones,” he said.
Because he’s feeling no soreness after a session, it’s hard for him not to want to push it more.
“Keep the shock collar on me and keep me from doing too much,” he said. “I’m feeling good. And I’m not getting sore and I want to go. But it’s smart not to rush. It’s a long season and I want to feel good till the end.”
There are no expectations of him being ready by the start of the season. The timetable back will be “very slow and very deliberate” according to McClendon.
“That’s on purpose,” he said. “We’re not going to rush this young man. He’s throwing well. He feels good. But we need to get that velocity up where it needs to be for him to be the dominant guy he needs to be. You just can’t rush the process.”
• Robinson Cano singled in his fifth straight Cactus League game. He is hitting .500 (6 for 12).
• Nick Franklin had a two-run single and a stolen base as he continues to battle Brad Miller for the starting shortstop job.
• Fernando Rodney will make his Mariners debut
Thursday in Glendale against the White Sox.
• Brandon Maurer made his first appearance after missing a few days with a sore back. He pitched two innings, giving up one run on two hits with a walk.
Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373
On Twitter: @RyanDivish