(The fans seem to like him. Courtesy of Getty Images)
It was a nationally televised game on ESPN last night, which gave me my first look at the newest rookie call up in 2013, Zoilo Almonte. Almonte's made quite the splash in his first few Major League games, contributing with his bat and glove and relegating Vernon Wells to the situational bench role he deserves. I did this exercise last month with David Adams and Austin Romine, and my optimistic predictions for both of them haven't exactly come true since. But with the Yankees still struggling for offense, still trying to piece together a competent and competitive lineup every day, and still looking for some cheap young talent to fill the roster next season, it makes sense to evaluate Zoilo as a solution to all 3 of those needs. While it wasn't a banner night for him last night (0-3, 2 K, 1 BB), there was still some good stuff that I saw in his game.
The first thing that stood out to me last night was Almonte's approach at the plate. For a guy who never had much of a reputation as a patient hitter coming up through the Minors, he really impressed me with his pitch recognition and willingness to take pitches that were just off the corner. He also didn't overswing - a common problem for rookies still a little geeked about being in the show - and the smoothness of his swing and lack of excessive pre-swing mechanical movement makes it easy to see why he can drive the ball when he makes solid contact.
There was also some unexpected maturity to Almonte's approach at the plate last night. In his first at-bat against Justin Grimm last night, Almonte turned his hips and pulled his hands in on a curveball low and inside and pulled it foul down the first base line. He got a fastball away on the next pitch and instead of trying to do too much with it with 2 strikes he just reached out and fouled it off the other way down the left field line. The at-bat ended with a strikeout, but Almonte's ability and willingness to hit the ball where it was pitched was a good indicator of why he's stronger hitting from the left side.
During the 6th inning rally, Almonte came up with 2 on and 1 out against Robbie Ross, this time hitting right-handed, and he very coolly and calmly took a 5-pitch walk to load the bases. Ross threw a couple borderline fastballs and again Almonte showed his improved patience and smart situational baseball skills by not being over-aggressive and hacking to make something happen.
Defensively, Almonte really impressed me in the handful of plays I saw him make. His reputation from MiL scouting reports made him sound like a bit of an adventure out there but I thought he handled himself well. He was athletic and quick moving to the ball - both over his head and in front of him - without being out of control and he was smooth and effective fielding balls off the wall and getting them back in quickly. He made a really good throw from the warning track to almost nail Ian Kinsler at second in the top of the 8th, so there's plenty of arm out there to get the job done. Is he going to win a slew of Fielding Bible Awards? No, absolutely not. He also didn't look like he was going to be a liability out there, and that'll get the job done when he's got Brett Gardner patrolling center next to him.
He always profiled as a fringe player at this level, a 4th outfielder at best, and that may very well be what Zoilo's ultimate ceiling is. His early SSS results are encouraging though, and he looked to me last night like he's got enough tools to stick at this level. We've already seen what happens with Adams when other teams start to figure out your strengths and weaknesses and try to exploit them. Within the next few weeks we'll see how Almonte adapts to that.