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Almonte appears safe

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Tom Haudricourt
March 28, 2011
— Of all the players invited to the Milwaukee Brewers’ spring camp, Erick Almonte might have been the most unlikely to make the 25-man roster.

Consider that Almonte is 33 years old, has played only 39 games in the majors and none since 2003, played in Japan in 2005 and independent ball in 2006 merely to keep alive his career, and has been released four times.


Yet, barring another late trade or unforeseen development, Almonte laid claim to the final reserve infield spot Sunday when Luis Cruz cleared waivers and was sent outright to Class AAA Nashville.


Basically, Almonte hit his way onto the club with a blistering spring. He is batting .451 in a club-high 71 at-bats with three home runs, 13 RBI and a .473 on-base percentage.


“His at-bats have been really impressive,” said manager Ron Roenicke. “I told you guys I don’t like to go just on spring training. I still believe that. But there are certain things you see a guy do that shows the ability to play at that level that you need.”


With an otherwise all-left-handed bench, Roenicke wants a right-handed hitter to call on against left-handed pitchers late in games. He realizes that’s not easy duty for any player but believes Almonte is up to it.


“Pinch hitting, without a doubt, is the toughest thing to do in baseball,” said Roenicke. “When you find a guy you think has the ability to do it, it’s a special guy. I’m not saying this guy is going to be a huge success (but) I’d be very surprised if he isn’t good at this job because of the way he approaches his at-bats.


“He’s always thinking about staying up the middle; going the other way. He can drive the ball; he can hit it on a line. He sees the ball well. He recognizes pitches; he doesn’t chase a lot of stuff out of the (strike) zone. That’s what allows you to be a good pinch-hitter.”


Almonte came up in the New York Yankees’ organization as a shortstop but is now considered primarily a corner infielder and outfielder. He started in right field in the Brewers’ exhibition game against the Chicago White Sox.


With Cruz headed for Nashville, veteran Craig Counsell will be the backup middle infielder.


“I feel good with Counsell there,” said Roenicke.


Asked if he gave much thought to Almonte making the club at the outset of camp, Roenicke said, “Probably not. But I had heard from our guys in the minor leagues that if you need a right-handed pinch-hitter, this is the guy we think can do the job.


“It’s hard to explain with the at-bats we’ve seen and the approach he has that he has not been in the major leagues other than that time with the Yankees. I don’t know if we’re looking at a guy that has totally improved himself offensively or if this is just the same guy that somehow figured it out, or got the opportunity.


“That’s not to say he’s been doing what he’s been doing. For one, he’s not going to get the at-bats. When you get all these at-bats and you’re locked in, it’s pretty easy to stay there. He’s going to go from playing a lot to not playing very much.


“So we’ll see what happens. But, like I said, the approach gives him a better chance than we thought other guys had of doing that job.”


Audition tape


Right-hander Marco Estrada took advantage of his last chance to prove he should get the call on April 6 when the Brewers need a fifth starter for the first time. Estrada went six innings against the Chicago White Sox, allowing seven hits and two runs with a walk and four strikeouts.


Though not officially in the Brewers’ camp, Estrada emerged as the top contender to fill in for injured Zack Greinke. In five games, including two starts, he is 1-1 with a 1.88 ERA.


“I just came out here and tried to do my job,” said Estrada, who spent much of 2010 on the Brewers’ DL with shoulder woes. “If they give me the job, I’ll gladly take it and be very excited. If not, I’ll work my butt off and get back up here.”


Because the Brewers don’t need a fifth starter until the sixth game of the season, they won’t keep Estrada out of camp even if he is their choice. It’s a somewhat odd situation but Estrada is hoping for the best.


“I just hope I gave them something to think about,” he said. “It’s in their hands now. We’ll see what happens in the next week. Hopefully, I’ll get good news.”


Roenicke noted that Estrada is on schedule to pitch on April 6 and added, “He’s not going to be intimidated. That’s important.”



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