M’s rookie center fielder Almonte appears to be favorite to bat leadoff

PEORIA, Ariz. — The Seattle Mariners are a just a week from breaking their Arizona camp, and manager Lloyd McClendon, among other looming decisions, isn’t yet willing to commit to a leadoff hitter.

Everything points to switch-hitter Abraham Almonte as the favorite. He served as the leadoff hitter, while playing center field, in 17 of his 18 spring starts — including each of the Mariners’ last eight games.

“Down here, he has been (the leadoff hitter),” McClendon said. “I’m not ready to make (those decisions). We’re still tinkering with our lineup. You saw somebody else leading off one of the games (Saturday).”

True enough. Almonte only started one of the two split-squad games Saturday, but he accompanied the rest of the projected starters to Salt River Fields in Scottsdale for the game against Colorado.

And while Almonte’s production isn’t wowing the stat sheets (9-for-57 with five walks ), McClendon and other club officials contend there’s much to recommend.

“Spring training can be very deceiving from time to time,” McClendon said. “I think this young man, the last four or five days, has swung the bat extremely well.

“He hasn’t had any results, but his approach, his contact point, his aggressiveness … have been pretty impressive for the most part. Those are the things we’ll try to take into account … I like what I see.”

Almonte, 24, came to the Mariners a little over a year ago from the Yankees in a trade for pitcher Shawn Kelley. He split time at Class AA Jackson and Class AAA Tacoma before batting .264 in 25 big-league games.

A converted infielder, Almonte flashed impressive range this spring into both gaps as a center fielder. That in itself might be sufficient to win a starting job.

If so, he might then get the leadoff spot by default — unless the Mariners want to start their lineup with three left-handed hitters (Kyle Seager and

Robinson Cano are the projected two-three hitters).

“Conventional wisdom says leadoff guys should see a lot of pitches,” McClendon said, “but I don’t think he’s a conventional type of leadoff hitter. He does have the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark.

“That’s pretty interesting.”

The Mariners’ projected lineup offers few alternatives if McClendon wants a right-handed bat in front of Seager and Cano against left-handed pitchers.

Right fielder/DH Corey Hart and catcher Mike Zunino are the lineup’s only right-handed hitters. Neither are leadoff candidates. Nor is switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak.

Nick Franklin, another switch-hitter, would be a possibility — if he beats out Brad Miller as the starting shortstop. Miller is a left-handed hitter.

It’s for that reason, probably, that McClendon won’t rule out a left-handed hitter atop the lineup. Miller batted leadoff last season in 67 of the Mariners’ final 77 games.

“If you can stack them up and get four or five runs off the starter,” McClendon said, “I’ll take my chances. Whether it’s left or right, for me, it’s a factor, but it’s not a major factor.”

Even so, he concedes it isn’t ideal particularly when matching up against opposing bullpens in the late innings.

“I want to try to win the first seven innings,” he said, “and then I’ll hold on for the last two. When you’re down in the first seven, and then matching up, it’s ugly.

“Do I want a balanced lineup? Yeah, I do.”

That might mean Almonte.

Walker, Pryor pitch

Rehabbing right-handers Taijuan Walker and Stephen Pryor made their spring debuts in a Class AAA game. Each worked one inning for Tacoma against El Paso (San Diego).

Walker threw only fastballs and changeups in a 15-pitch outing while giving up one run and two hits. He was clocked from 93-96 mph before completing his work by throwing 15 more pitches in the bullpen.

“I was pumped,” said Walker, who is recovering from bursitis in his shoulder. “I was trying not to be. I was trying not to overthrow or throw too hard. … I walk away happy because my arm feels good.”

Pryor required just 11 pitches to work a one-two-three inning. He hit 90-92 mph while throwing fastballs, sliders and changeups.

“I feel I’m back to normal,” said Pryor, who underwent surgery last August to repair a torn back muscle. “I’m not having to think where my arm slot is. Or worrying about if this one is going to hurt or not.”

Both are expected to open the season on the disabled list but could be ready to rejoin the club at some point in mid-to-late April.

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