Name: Zoilo Almonte
Bats: Switch Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 23 (born 6/10/1989)
Height: 6’0" Weight: 205 lbs.
Remaining Contract: Under team control (contract details unknown)
2012 statistics: (AA) 106 games, .278/.322/.488, 23 2B, 21 HR, 15 SB, .358 wOBA, 120 wRC+
The curious rise of Zoilo-mania* was something to behold for Yankees fans paying close attention to the team last year. Few fans even knew who Zoilo Almonte was had he not performed as he did last March in Spring Training. He would have just been another nobody with an amazing name in the organization, like Exicardo Cayones and Evan Rutckyj. Was citing their names simply another example of why they are awesome? Yes, but that’s not the point. Zoilo was not on the 40-man roster as recently as the end of his 2012 season. What did the unheralded 23-year-old do to deserve protection in the Rule 5 Draft?
*NB: Perhaps fictional outside of certain corners of the Internet.
Zoilo, a native of the Dominican Republic, was signed by the Yankees when he was only 17 years old in 2006. It took him a few years to get out of Rookie Ball while he developed as a young switch-hitter since he was naturally a righty, but when he reached short-season Staten Island in ’09, he showed that the time spent growing was worth it by hitting .274/.355/.440 with a 135 wRC+ in 69 games. Zoilo only needed half a season in low-A Charleston to earn a promotion after posting similar numbers there prior to joining high-A Tampa. There, his growth stalled somewhat as he hit .259/.319/.366 with a middling 96 wRC+ in 61 games. He would start 2011 in Tampa, but that did not necessarily mean that he would be there for long.
Now with some experience in Tampa under his belt, Zoilo started the ’11 campaign hot and even earned South Atlantic League All-Star honors thanks to his .298/.373/.522, 145 wRC+ first half. Perhaps his biggest step up was better command of the strike zone in a 10.6% walk percentage, evidence of his further understanding of SAL pitchers. Zoilo was promoted to AA Trenton on July 15th, but as in the previous season, he struggled at first against the tougher pitching staffs. Zoilo closed out his 2011 in a fairly punchless second half wherein his OBP just barely cracked .300 in 46 games.
Although his first stint in Trenton was not great, his strong start in Tampa got Zoilo an invitation to Spring Training 2012. He quickly caught some eyes by starting the Spring with four straight hits over three games with a double and three RBI. Such starts tend to be overexposed since the media and fans are so starved for actual baseball games after nearly half a year away. Manager Joe Girardi briefly talked about him as a possible outfield bench candidate, but in hindsight, it was more than likely praise to keep his player’s confidence up. (What was he supposed to say, "Zoilo isn’t good; we’re just humoring him, please play along?") Zoilo inevitably cooled down to 2-for-his-next-9 before being sent to minor league camp following action on March 15th.
Even if the games did not mean anything, that opening impression at least put the idea of tracking Zoilo’s progress in some fans’ minds over the course of the 2012, and he rewarded them. He hit a personal high in homers with 21 despite playing half of his games at the hitter’s nightmare of Waterfront Park, and overall, batted .278/.322/.488 with a 120 wRC+, 23 doubles, and 15 stolen bases. The one downside to an Eastern League All-Star season was a regression in Zoilo’s walk rate, as it fell to 5.6%, his lowest since his first season in Rookie League. He was getting a little too antsy in the batter’s box, and he will need to cut down on that in the future. That being said, it was a great year for Zoilo and it increased his stock enough to earn a spot on the 40-man roster at the end of the season.
What’s next for Zoilo? Well, it sure seems like a promotion to AAA is in order since it sure seems like he’s hit his way out of Trenton. Could he be on the big-league roster, though? Right now, the Yankees have no obvious backup outfielders. However, there still plenty of time between now and Spring Training for GM Brian Cashman to add some people with experience as the Yankees often do. Girardi did speak well of Zoilo last March, and I’m sure at least some of it was genuine for a young, switch-hitting outfielder with decent power.
The gap between AA pitching and MLB pitching is far from insurmountable, although it’s important to remember that Zoilo struggled at first in his last two entries to higher levels; he may very well do that in AAA, let alone the majors. Zoilo is also only average on defense and his baserunning is a work in progress. There is still plenty for Zoilo to work on in the minors, but would it be a bad decision to give his bat a shot on the bench in the pros? I don’t see why not. The Yankees obviously like something about him since they protected him on the 40-man roster. At the very least, he should be in AAA to start next year and will be one of the first people called in case of an injury. Cashman’s transaction plans between now and Opening Day will reveal whether or not Zoilo has a real chance at the roster.