MESA, Ariz. – If Albert Almora had gone to the University of Miami, he would just be starting his first full season in professional baseball.
That’s really not an excuse pushed by Theo Epstein’s front office. It’s a reality check for a Cubs organization spoiled by the lightning-quick development of Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.
“You have to realize that everybody’s different,” Almora said Friday at the Sloan Park complex. “I feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”
Almora just found out that he was being assigned to minor-league camp, part of a round of cuts that sliced the spring roster to 36. But the first player drafted here by the Epstein administration took the news in stride, knowing he could be one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa at some point this season.
Almora flashed enough highlight-reel defense in center field to show that he can play for Joe Maddon — a manager who really digs run prevention — and potentially replace Dexter Fowler in 2017.
“He’s turning into a complete player,” Maddon said. “He’s hit the ball well here. But beyond that, his defense has been great. His route-running has been really, really good. He can be impactful. His game is really elevated.”
The Cubs passed on Addison Russell with the sixth pick in the 2012 draft because they felt he had been out of shape in high school and questioned his ability to stick at shortstop. The Cubs looked at Almora as having a higher, sturdier floor after playing for Team USA and against elite competition while growing up in South Florida.
Russell wound up dropping to the Oakland A’s at No. 11 and becoming the headliner in the Jeff Samardzija trade. Russell bumped Starlin Castro off shortstop during a playoff run that never would have happened last year without first-round picks Bryant (2013) and Schwarber (2014).
Outside of No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa (the American League Rookie of the Year for the Houston Astros last season) and two fast-track college pitchers like Michael Wacha (No. 19, St. Louis Cardinals) and Marcus Stroman (No. 22, Toronto Blue Jays), the 2012 first-round class hasn’t really made its mark yet.
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Almora won’t turn 22 until April 16 — or feel left behind by the youth movement at Wrigley Field.
“Just keep doing what I’m doing, man,” Almora said. “Don’t change anything.”
Almora’s Cactus League impression last year didn’t carry over into an up-and-down season at Double-A Tennessee — .272 average, six homers, 46 RBI in 106 games — and he’s had issues with staying healthy throughout his career.
But the Cubs think Almora — the young kid who’s used to playing up a level or two — isn’t that far away from Wrigleyville now.
“He’s at that point where he believes he belongs here and he can do this,” Maddon said. “He’s been a good spring performer (before). The difference is when you talk to him, he’s not as wide-eyed about it. He’s just more comfortable here.”