Spring Training is a great way to see prospects in action if you don't closely follow the minors during the regular season. There are always the names you know, like Manny Banuelos and Gary Sanchez, but there are also the unknowns who have not been hyped up on top prospects lists who you wait for an announcer to identify, or you have to look up their number on the Yankees' roster online.
Those guys are interesting to me, especially when they succeed, because there are absolutely no defined expectations for them. No one starts to panic if they are bad the way they would with ManBan or Dellin Betances. Every once in a while, one of them comes out of basically nowhere to surprise you, though, and for the most part this Spring Training, that prospect has been Zoilo Almonte.
No one would really blame you if you didn't know his name before this. He doesn't make the Top 10 Prospects list, he had to repeat Rookie Ball, and his name is not Slade Heathcott or Mason Williams. Despite all that, he was added to the Yankees' 40 man roster this offseason to protect him from being taken in the Rule V draft, and has gotten people to notice him by starting Spring Training on a hot streak.
Knowing as you do that the Yankees are notoriously thin at upper level outfield prospects, and with the goal of a $189 million dollar payroll by 2014 hanging overhead, could Zoilo Almonte be someone that could fill an outfield spot inexpensively? I beat the dead horse on the impending outfield situation and discuss Zoilo's minor league numbers after the jump.
Almonte is a switch-hitting corner outfield prospect who has flown largely under the radar thanks to unspectacular minor league numbers. With Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott slated to start the season at Low A Charleston and High A Tampa, respectively, we are left with Colin Curtis, unimpressive Melky Mesa, and virtually unknown Zoilo Almonte to fill the spot of Nick Swisher or Curtis Granderson in the event that one or both of them aren't brought back in the near future, which seems almost inevitable. Chris Dickerson and Justin Maxwell are both out of options, but remain in the fray of underperforming AAA outfielders that are a dime a dozen in Scranton this season. I'm not sure anyone would feel good about turning over the starting job to either one of them, and if you would, I'll have whatever you're having.
I doubt any of that is very comforting to you, but the Yankees really need to find a homegrown outfield prospect somewhere out of that bunch. The popular bet will be Mason Williams, but until he continues his success at higher levels of the minors, I'm going to temper my expectations with him and you'd do well to do the same. An unsustainable BABIP-fueled run through Staten Island isn't much to hang your hat on right now. He's years away from the majors and anything could happen between now and then. Don't get me wrong, he could be fantastic and I hope he is, but putting all your outfield hopes and dreams on him right now seems a bit premature.
Slade Heathcott has been continually injured, maxing out at 76 games played in Charleston in 2010. Maybe he'll figure out how to stay healthy and put his talents that have him ranked so highly within the Yankee system on display, but he hasn't proven that he can do so to this point. Even if he does manage to stay on the field, he'll be doing so at Tampa with a chance to move up to Trenton mid-season. He's still a few years away if everything goes right, and the Yankees may need an outfielder sooner rather than later if Swisher is not resigned.
Anyway, this post is not about those guys, it's about Almonte. Why could he be the guy to take over a starting spot in the Yankee outfield in the next two or three years? Well, he's already debuted at AA Trenton, which makes his development schedule more in line with the time frame the Yankees are working with than Mason Williams', and Melky Mesa is, well, Melky Mesa.
With the help of numbers via fangraphs, here is what Zoilo has accomplished in his time in the minors with the Yankees:
He certainly hasn't set anything on fire in his progression through the minor league system. Aside from the weirdness that happened when he repeated Rookie Ball, he's been pretty consistent: when he moves up a level mid season, he struggles, and then eventually adjusts and improves when he starts the following season there. His numbers after being promoted to Tampa in 2010 were not great, but they improved greatly after starting there the next season before being promoted to Trenton halfway through 2011. If history holds true, we should see improvement in his AA numbers as he (most likely) begins the 2012 season there.
Zoilo takes a good number of walks, but also strikes out at a somewhat concerning rate. He doesn't have an abundance of home run power, but 10-15 probably wouldn't be out of the question, I don't think. Mike Axisa at River Ave Blues called him "a poor man's version of Swisher at the plate", and that seems like it could be a pretty apt comparison. He's not going to hit as many home runs as Swisher will, but he can still demonstrate patience at the plate by taking a walk, or show off a bit of power and speed by hitting one into the gap.
Almonte has decently good speed, but that hasn't really translated into tons of stolen bases for him. He has stolen at least 15 bases the last three seasons, but if he improves his smarts on the base paths, he could easily develop into more of a stolen base threat. He's solid to above average defensively with a good arm and good range, but definitely not a Brett Gardneresque defensive superstar, though very few are.
If Zoilo can cut down on his strikeout totals while continuing to improve his power numbers, he certainly has the potential to be a fine major league outfielder. His progression hasn't been spectacular and there isn't much to really suggest he'll be a superstar, but I believe he could be more than serviceable at some point in the next few years if the Yankees need someone to help keep a spot warm for Mason Williams, and maybe even beyond. Maybe. Hopefully.