Jackson center fielder Denny Almonte is a former second round pick out of a Florida high school that didn't quite live up to expectations during his first five seasons in the Mariners organization. But following a strong showing in the Australian League over the offseason, it seems that the 23-year-old switch-hitter is starting to figure some things out about himself and about the game.
Almonte recently took some time before a Generals' home game to speak with SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall about what has changed for him and about what drives him in the day-to-day grind of being a minor league ballplayer reaching for the big league dream.
SeattleClubhouse: Thanks so much for calling today, Denny. Did your round of batting practice go well today?
Denny Almonte: Yes it did, thanks.
SC: First and foremost, let's take a little time to clear up some confusion that I still see floating around from time to time about you, something that I'm sure you have heard a lot in your career: You are not the famous Almonte of the "too old for Little League" infamy.
DA: (laughs) No, that is not me.
SC: How many times do you think you've been asked that in your life?
DA: I have no idea. I thought that was going to stop at some point, but it seems like people still don't know. I usually hear it everywhere I go, even now.
SC: But you are not a left-handed pitcher, you're a switch-hitting, right-hand throwing outfielder.
DA: That's right.
SC: All right, well let's talk about the true Denny Almonte's past now. You were very highly regarded coming out of Florida Christian and ended up being a 2nd round pick by the Mariners back in 2007. Did you consider going to college at all at that time, and what was that whole draft experience like for you?
DA: Yeah, I had several full-ride options, including a nice offer from University of South Florida, but we negotiated and my family, agent and I felt like the Mariners' offer was a very fair one and that, at that time, turning pro was the best route for me to take. I really didn't know what to expect with negotiations, and I really wasn't dead-set on either turning pro or going to college, I was just thinking that whatever happens, happens. I felt like I could either sign out of the draft out of high school or go to college for three years and maybe be a little farther along. Looking back, I'm very happy with the decision that I made and happy that I'm already five, six seasons into my professional career with the Mariners.
SC: You were very active in the showcase circuit during your senior year in high school -- from Aflac All American to Perfect Game and beyond -- were the scouts noticeably pursuing you and watching your every move at your high school games?
DA: Yes they were, I played in all of those tournaments and showcases, left to right, and I had a lot of scouts around all the time. I had to play in front of them a lot and in those showcases quite a bit, but at the time I didn't really know or understand it or even see it as pressure so much, I was just playing baseball and having fun. I was just thinking, whatever is best for me will end up happening, so I was just having a lot of fun and doing the best I could and it all worked out.
SC: Well, I'm sure most of what attracted the scouts is your hitting, and you're certainly a gifted hitter, but I want to touch on your defense here for a minute first. You are actually a very good defender in center field, so much so that you've seemingly been pushing other natural center fielders out of the way all along your climb through the minor leagues. Tell me about playing center field and what makes you such a good center fielder.
DA: I'm actually very comfortable playing all three outfield positions and I've played all three. When I was coming up early in my career we basically had three center fielders on the team so we switched back and forth, but I really feel like outfield defense in general is really not a hard thing to do. I just think doing all of your work down in Spring Training and all year long and just concentrating and being consistent with it and getting in that repetition -- kind of like hitting -- starts to build those good habits and it makes you more comfortable as you go. Sometimes even my own teammates ask me how I make it look so easy out there and I just tell them, "I don't know, I just feel comfortable". I just play the game the way that I know how. I really feel that my speed is the biggest thing that helps me succeed and makes me look like a good defender right now because I feel like even if I don't get the best jump on a ball I can still run it down because of that speed.
SC: Getting back to your hitting, you're a switch-hitter as we touched on, but what side is your natural side and when did you start switch-hitting?
DA: My right side is my natural side. Everybody always thinks that my left side is, but -- I throw right-handed -- so I was a right-hander when I started. I actually started switch-hitting way back when I was age 10. So, while I was growing up, almost everyone was right-handed so I was mostly hitting left-handed that whole time. I've really been facing right-handers a lot way back to when I was 10-years-old so I've had that much more exposure batting left-handed. And even now in batting practice, I don't feel comfortable hitting righty off of right-handers because I've been switch-hitting so long. But I really feel like all of that practice that I've had in switch-hitting and hitting left-handed has helped to make me the hitter that I am right now.
SC: And the hitter that you are right now is, well, while you've always showed very good power, it seems that this year you are showing a lot more to your game as a hitter. You're being a lot more patient, working the count more and being more selective and getting better counts and being more selective in the pitches you attack, etc. How did you get to that change this year? Is it something specific that the coaches worked on with you, or...?
DA: You know, the coaches have always been working on that with me, but eventually it just comes down to us. I mean the coaches can work and work, but it's ultimately up to us to make a change. I feel like the thing that helped me out the most was playing Winter Ball in Australia. They sent me down there to work on the strike zone and be better at recognizing pitches, and I ended up actually drawing a good number of walks (19 in 45 games, to be exact). And I thought to myself, "This is what they are really looking for from me. They don't really care about my batting average," they told me that if I walk more, then my batting average will naturally come up. So then bringing that back here (to Jackson), where I feel like pitchers are more consistent and more around the zone, I can pare it down and not swing at pitches that I feel like I'm not good at hitting. At the lower levels, where they aren't as consistent around the strike zone, sometimes those borderline pitches are called strikes. But here, I'm taking them. And by taking pitches I feel like I'm better understanding what I can and what I should swing at and it is making me a better hitter overall.
SC: Very good. Well, the ABL was where I was going next, so explain that experience to me if you would. I've heard from baseball people that most consider the ABL the first step below the Arizona Fall League in terms of competition, but what was it like playing against that good competition clear on the other side of the world?
DA: It was a great experience. Everyone treated me very well over there. Actually all of the imported guys over there from all of the teams, it seems like we all got the same great treatment. I'm actually surprised that I've faced a few guys this season that I played over in Australia. I actually just faced a guy from the Tennessee Smokies that I faced over there and that is cool. It is really good competition and a strong league, but it's a little different. All of the traveling is by plane instead of bus, so that is nice. And also you only play Thursday through Sunday, so you get a good amount of rest in between games, too. But I was working out a lot Monday through Thursday and then playing the games because I wanted to accomplish my weight to come to Spring Training strong and do what the Mariners wanted me to do for the upcoming season.
SC: Who has been that driving force, that role model for you in your baseball career that's helped to keep you motivated?
DA: It's always been my dad. Even to this day, he still doesn't think everything that I do is good, you know? I mean, I could go 3-for-3, but if one of those three was just a fly ball that fell in for whatever reason, he wouldn't like it. Coming up I was a shortstop and he always helped work on me, never really gave me a day off, from like age eight to even now when I go back down to see him. He lets me control it now because he knows that I understand the game more now, but he's always there to help me out, no matter what.
SC: You and your teammates got the chance to meet or hang out with Ken Griffey, Jr. recently; did you pick his brain at all while he was in town?
DA: Yeah, I did. He talked to us a lot, but really we all expected him to talk more about hitting with us than he did. The main thing he tried to get us to understand was that the main thing he said we need to do is just have fun. He said that if we aren't having fun then nothing is really ever going to get accomplished. He said just have fun and the rest will come through naturally.
SC: How do you prepare yourself for the day-to-day challenges and how do you work through the highs and lows of playing baseball for a living?
DA: I tell my little brother that is coming up right now this, and that is I just take it day by day and not get too high or too low no matter what happens. I take it day by day and keep my routine going. Every day I hit at the same time in the cages and then after I hit, I come back in and hit at least 15 balls from each side from the tee. And I feel like once I go through my routine and set my mind then I am ready to approach that day and that day's challenges no matter what has happened before.
SC: Do you set goals for yourself before a season, week-to-week, or anything like that to help with that motivation and focus?
DA: Yes I do. I set a goal before the season to make a team, and then once the season starts I make goals for each series. I used to do goals for each week, but now I break it down for each series -- I saw that I was averaging between 20-25 at bats in each five game series, so I thought that was a good place to break things down -- so that way I can focus on what I need to accomplish in each series.
SC: Well I really appreciate you taking time out of your routine today to talk to me about your story and your game. I know you have a game tonight, so I won't keep you. Continued success to you in the future and I hope to talk to you again sometime, Denny.
DA: Alright, thank you Rick.