The Mariners went ahead and blissfully released their fans from the Sisyphean self-flagellation brought on by having to watch Abraham Almonte handle leadoff responsibilities for the month of April. Almonte struggled in spring training but had caught the eye of Manager Lloyd McClendon for reasons that seemed somewhat unknown but in light of recent events are actually probably a little more known.
Almonte is a player who is too unrefined at this point in his career to figure things out at the Major League level. That being said, Lloyd McClendon has been around the game a long time, and despite what ivory tower-bound writers immersed in statistics and data may want to believe, there is some value in experience and the old-fashioned eye test. This is a game played by humans. Other humans have to look at said humans and make decisions based on a number of factors including past statistical performance as well as potential room for growth and improvement. Almonte was a player who had not been great in the Minor Leagues for long, but he had played well there for a while. He was also a player with whom it could be easy to fall in love with as a Manager like McClendon presented with a roster otherwise devoid of any traditional center fielders.
The Mariners have done 1 of the 2 things that many fans have been calling for. They have freed Michael Saunders from his concrete-bound aviary and allowed him to soar in an expanded role as a leadoff man. I have always liked Saunders (It is not hard to become infatuated with Saunders’ raw tools and potential) and many believed that his disastrous stretch during last year’s campaign was as much a result of a kamikaze condor-dive into an outfield fence than a sign of mediocrity or true regression from his 2012 campaign that saw him break out for a 2.5 WAR season that could have actually been closer to 4 WAR had his defense in centerfield not counted against him (although then he would have lost the weighted value WAR gives to players out in center field that is much lower in the corners, which is why Trout’s value this year is already so high despite the fact that his offensive numbers pace to be more or less the same and perhaps a tad worse. WAR as a catchall stat is weird like this because it is super convenient but the internal numbers are actually pretty fucking confusing).
Which brings us to our next point and the reason why Jones’ call-up was somewhat of an inevitability.
It is regarded by many (certainly defensive statistics indicate this) that Michael Saunders will never be more than a slightly below-average defender in centerfield. These same defensive metrics, however, consistently point to him being excellent in right. Looking at last year’s Rtot/yr (the number of runs above or below average a player is worth per 1200 innings), Saunders in centerfield sat at -18 runs, in left he was at -24 runs and in right he ditched that negative number bullshit and went straight up to 9 runs above average.
This means in pretty basic terms that, if we trust the way defensive metrics are taken over at baseballreference.com than we can assume that a year of condor-action over in right field is a 27 run defensive swing over a year of Saunders out in center (provided an at-least-adequate defensive replacement is taking over in center). Despite what many believe, the people who work in the Mariners’ organization are not idiots. Wealthy people do not like to hire idiots, and I can say with a fair degree of certainty that the people making these decisions are probably a hell of a lot more qualified than I am. If I can spot this, they have probably already spotted it, circled it in red and subsequently paid an intern sub-minimum-wage to make a fucking PowerPoint out of it to present at a conference.
So yeah, the same team that allowed Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse and Jason Bay to share outfield duties AT THE SAME FUCKING TIME, actually had a fairly decent reason to keep Saunders out of center. Almonte has one loud tool and that is his ridiculous speed. Speed profiles well in center and they felt for a time that Almonte’s offense as well as his defensive approach in the field could improve quickly enough in the Major Leagues to turn that speed into value out in the field and at the top of the order.
That didn’t happen.
Almonte’s struggles at the plate this season were catastrophic. He led the league in strikeouts with 39 in the month of April- this despite being a leadoff hitter whose sole purpose is to put the ball in play and use his aforementioned speed to get on base and subsequently be a chubby pain-in-the-ass running hither and thither to the detriment of non-Mariners nationwide. You can’t get on base if you strike out. You also can’t steal first base. This isn’t ‘nam, you can tell because of all the fucking rules.
This all leads one to believe that though the Mariners believe in Saunders at the top of the order, they may not also believe in him as a defensive centerfielder. The logic eventually leads us straight to James Jones who can absolutely fucking fly down the line and out in the field. In the few innings I have seen of him in Spring Training and in a few Rainiers’ games, he doesn’t take the same “Leonardo DiCaprio on Quaaludes” routes that made Almonte such an adventure out in center, either. It is true that Jones has actually logged more time in the corners than he has in center during his minor league career– but it is also true that he has more or less always been an outfielder. He looks like an outfielder. He quacks like an outfielder. The quacking will ensure that he and Ackley have a solid rapport in the field. Gone are the days of the all-second-base Mariners’ outfield. Two of our outfielders are outfielders now. Hooray for small miracles.
So basically what we have is a Frankenstein’s monster comprised of Condor’s bat sewed horrifically to the center-field-defense of James Jones, murmuring “kill me” as Lloyd cackles maniacally. Another way to put it is we have swapped in Jones to provide defense, allowed Saunders an expanded offensive roll and perhaps incidentally cut out some at-bats for Ackley and/or Romero. I don’t mind this horribly, as I still expect to see Condor patrolling Center every now and again. It isn’t his best position, but it is hardly a disaster and I think at this point even if Saunders does not continue to hit .400 as he has been doing the past couple of weeks, he has shown enough to warrant everyday inclusion in the lineup.
This also probably spells a bit of doom for Logan Morrison in the outfield. That shouldn’t bother anybody. If Morrison plays, he should be playing at DH or first base anyway. 2 cents provided.
Worst comes to worse, we have a shiny new fast player to care about for a couple of weeks until he develops Krohn’s disease, can’t hit, or swan dives down a flight of stairs into his wife’s face.
Welcome back to the squad, Mr. Jones.