COMMENTARY | Zoilo Almonte has dazzled in the first three starts of his career, and that boost could not have come at a better time for the offensively anemic New York Yankees lineup. The switch-hitting 24-year-old from the Dominican Republic has Yankee fans seeing visions of an everyday right fielder for years to come, and with good reason.
Almonte has already put together a pretty line as a starter: 6-for-10, his first home run, 4 RBIs, 2 2Bs, 2 Rs, 2 BBs. He still has far to go before approaching Shane Spencer's grand September of 1998 (10 HRs with three grand slams in 67 ABs), but it's a start.
Prior to this season, MLB.com ranked Almonte No. 10 among Yankees prospects after he launched 21 long balls and drove in 70 runs for the Double-A Trenton Thunder in 2012. He even swiped 15 bags and led the Eastern League in postseason RBI (per MiLB.com).
Though Almonte failed to earn a roster spot in training camp, he excelled at Triple-A Scranton this year, posting a .297 average and .369 on-base percentage to go with six dingers and 36 RBIs. He also showed the ability to hit well from both sides of the plate, averaging .281 against lefties in 64 ABs and .303 against righties in 195 ABs.
As manager Joe Girardi declared, "He's been on our radar for a while…the time has arrived" (per Ben Walker of the Associated Press, via Yahoo!). And that time could last a long time if Zoilo keeps up even modest production.
Almonte's call-up came out of necessity more than anything else. As of June 21, the Yankees ranked 12th in the American League in runs scored, and their .240 team batting average put them just behind the Houston Astros for second-worst in the AL.
Of course, the Bronx Bombers have been ravaged by injuries, rehab setbacks and recurrences of said injuries.
They boast a megabucks lineup on the disabled list, including Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis and Alex Rodriguez. Even badly needed role players Francisco Cervelli and Eduardo Nunez have caught the team's injury bug.
Somehow, to the credit of Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman, the Yankees have remained within striking distance of first place in the AL East. But after starting the season 30-18, they stumbled to a 9-15 stretch that included two five-game losing streaks in three weeks.
Then a man named Zoilo came along.
An Inauspicious Debut
On June 19 at Yankee Stadium, my father and I attended the second game of a double-header against Yasiel Puig and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Continuing his white-hot debut, Puig (can we please call him Man Bear Puig?) smacked a homer, scored three runs and swiped a base.
Chris Capuano and the L.A. bullpen allowed nary a run, zero walks and just three hits to the Yankees' Triple-A caliber lineup. The batting order looked less like Murderer's Row and much more like a softball team of waiters from Manhattan's Restaurant Row.
Jayson Nix (.260 average as of that game) batted second, while Thomas Neal (.182) started in right and hit fifth. Third baseman David Adams (.200) batted seventh, but yielded to pinch-hitter Reid Brignac (.098) in the eighth inning. Brignac grounded out and received a pink slip one game later.
Defensive-minded Austin Romine (.127) has been hitting like the kind of catcher you bat ninth even in the NL. He was mercifully pinch-hit for in the ninth inning by an oddly named player who I didn't even know was on the roster.
"Zoilo? Where do they get these guys?" was all my father said, just before Almonte grounded out to third. Soon after, the defeat ended.
With first at-bat nerves shaken off, Almonte came in as a pinch-hitter the following night and legged out his first career hit. Suddenly, he's a starting outfielder and owns a tidy four-game hitting streak.
Just call him "Puig Light."
What's His Role?
Outfielder Vernon Wells played creditable baseball to start the season but has fallen apart since.
As of June 20, Wells had just one walk and six hits, all singles, over a horrible three weeks: 59 ABs, 3 Rs, 3 RBIs. The 34-year-old no longer looks like an everyday player, and it seems high time for a youth movement in the Bronx.
Starting Almonte has paid double dividends, both giving the rookie a shot at stardom and briefly stirring Wells from his long slumber. After watching Zoilo light it up for the better part of two games, the veteran came on to pinch-hit and stroked a three-run double in the Yanks' June 22 victory. After all, Almonte can't do it alone.
In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, Yahoo! Contributor Howard Z. Unger hit the nail squarely on the head when he wrote on June 18 that Almonte should be called up.
As Unger pointed out, Cashman had already sung the young prospect's praises in late February, saying: "Zoilo Almonte is one of those guys that we have future everyday right fielder scouting grades on. His throw yesterday, his home run to the opposite field, we've seen that" (via Lou DiPietro, YESNetwork.com).
Whether Almonte can produce consistently and steer clear of those "rookie moments" remains to be seen, but at very least, the Yankees have lighted upon an outfielder to fill the void until Granderson returns from his second broken hand of the season. That could be a while, as he's only just now able to hold a bat (per MLB.com).
If Almonte maintains solid production at the plate, Girardi could eventually find himself with four worthy outfielders, which would be a good problem to have.
With pop in his bat, speed to rack up double-digit steals and an arm to make aggressive baserunnners think twice, Almonte has an opportunity to play corner outfield in New York for this season and beyond. Perhaps we are witnessing the dawn of the Age of Zoilo in the South Bronx.
Sean Hojnacki lives in Jersey City, New Jersey with his wife and a cat named Melky Cabrera. Most recently, Sean used his master's degree in phllosophy to cover the great NBA season as a league-wide featured columnist for Bleacher Report.
- Sports & Recreation
- New York Yankees
- Joe Girardi
- Yasiel Puig