PEORIA, Ariz. – Abraham Almonte just shakes his head when he tries to describe the last year of his baseball career.
In that time, he’s gone from an unknown to an unexpected surprise, from a player acquired to salvage something out of nothing to a player who could make the Mariners’ opening-day roster.
It’s been a magical ride for the 24-year-old outfielder. Asked to sum it all up, he used one word — “unbelievable.”
Not much was expected of Almonte when he was acquired a few days into spring training last season.
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The Mariners had been forced to designate reliever Shawn Kelley for assignment on Feb. 7 to make room on the 40-man roster after signing free-agent catcher Kelly Shoppach.
With Kelley not likely to clear waivers, the Mariners tried to salvage something out of the situation and acquired Almonte from the Yankees in a trade. The Mariners knew they had acquired a speedy, switch-hitting minor-league outfielder with some potential.
Almonte had hit .276 (88 for 319) with 17 doubles, four triples, four homers and stole 30 bases in 78 games for Class AA Trenton.
There was some talent.
But what the Mariners didn’t completely realize was that Almonte was finally healthy — physically, mentally and emotionally. His surgically repaired shoulder no longer ached and his eyes were finally clear from the late-night drinking binges. In 2011, Almonte addressed his growing alcohol problem and became a born-again Christian.
“It saved me,” he said.
With his personal life in order, he focused on his professional life.
The 2013 season was a product of that change. Almonte didn’t get a major-league spring-training invitation after the trade. He participated in the Mariners’ minor-league minicamp and was eventually sent to Class AA Jackson. After 29 games with the Generals where he hit .255 with six doubles, four homers and 18 runs batted in, he was moved up to Class AAA Tacoma. Almonte blossomed with the Rainiers. In 94 games, he hit .314 with 17 doubles, 11 homers and 50 RBI while stealing 20 bases.
It earned him a September call-up where he hit .264 with four doubles, two homers and nine RBI in 25 games. He even caught the eye of new manager Lloyd McClendon last season when the Mariners played the Tigers.
“When they came to Detroit last year, this guy played extremely well,” said McClendon, who was serving as Detroit’s hitting coach at the time. “It was a bit of an eye opener.”
Almonte hopes to continue opening eyes this spring and play his way onto the 25-man roster. He has a good chance to hook on as a fourth outfielder. With his ability to play all three outfield positions, his speed and his ability to switch-hit, he offers a lot of versatility and options for McClendon.
“His speed, that’s an asset,” McClendon said. “You don’t coach that. It’s inherited. That’s a nice piece to have. He’s an interesting young man and he’ll get opportunities.”
Almonte knows he must make the most of his situation. It motivated him all offseason.
“I always work hard in the offseason, but this year it was more,” he said. “When you get to the big leagues, the competition is much better. You play to win there. And if you want to win, then you need to work more.”
Some of that work came in the Mariners’ new academy in his native Dominican Republic. He was a celebrity among the young players there. Almonte had made it to the big leagues and yet he was there sweating, running and working with them as equals.
“I liked being around them,” he said. “I was like them a few years ago. So I tried to be there and talk to them and help them.”
Almonte’s reasoning was simple.
“I would have liked somebody to do the same thing for me,” he said. “I think baseball teaches you something every day about how you have to play. I’m still learning.”
The message was simple: work hard, always give 100 percent, listen to the coaches, keep your head up and good things can happen.
But Almonte didn’t just tell them. He showed them.
“I worked on everything,” he said. “I had it in my mind that I have to work harder and harder. I want to stay in the big leagues.”
Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @RyanDivish