Super-agent Scott Boras – who made a fortune and built an empire by identifying and nurturing baseball prodigies – watched in amazement as Albert Almora Jr. grabbed the rope and started climbing in his family’s backyard in South Florida.
“I’m going like: ‘Who does that?’” Boras recalled. “I told his dad: ‘How long has he been doing that?’ He said: ‘He’s always had that forearm strength.’”
Almora was around 15 years old at that point, the baseball gym rat who faced elite competition year-round in Miami and with Team USA, the kid who would grow up to be the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein regime and later score the winning run in last year’s World Series Game 7.
Almora – who won’t celebrate his 24th birthday until after Opening Day 2018 – has already appeared in 18 postseason games and earned the championship ring coveted by generations of Cubs players.
What’s next for someone so clearly driven to be more than a matchup hitter against left-handed pitching and a late-game defensive replacement?
“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Almora said last week at his locker in the Wrigley Field clubhouse after the Los Angeles Dodgers knocked the Cubs out of the National League Championship Series. “I’m here to win. I’m here for whenever they call my name.
“Obviously, the competitor in me wants to be there to help the team out every day, but it’s not in my control.”
This October, Almora made Dusty Baker pay for pulling Max Scherzer immediately after losing a no-hitter, delivering a pinch-hit RBI single off lefty reliever Sammy Solis as the Washington Nationals again collapsed in the first round and again fired their manager.
Almora also generated all the offense in a Game 1 NLCS loss, hammering a Clayton Kershaw slider that flew like a missile into the left-field seats at Dodger Stadium for a two-run homer.
How would those huge playoff moments translate across a 162-game season? Almora says he just waits for the text to see if he will be in the next day’s lineup. But a Cubs team that sounds open to changes after an inconsistent regular season – and a disappointing playoff flop – will have to find out.
The Detroit Tigers made it known how much they liked Almora as a potential Gold Glove center fielder, though from the start the Houston Astros had the superior package of prospects to offer and the Cubs never got that far down the road in the Justin Verlander trade talks.
While Verlander will start Wednesday night’s Game 2 at Dodger Stadium, the Cubs are trying to figure out how to get back there, who can lead their pitching staff and where all their young hitters will fit together.
“The real key for Albert,” Epstein said, “and his future development and what will dictate whether he reaches his very high ceiling or not is his ability to have really good, consistent at-bats against right-handed pitching (.711 OPS this year).
“He’s proven that he destroys left-handed pitching (.898 OPS) and is a real weapon that way – and any team would love to have him certainly against left-handed pitching. He made really nice strides against right-handed pitching as the year went on. This kid worked so hard using the slider machine, just seeing slider after slider after slider in the cage.
“Training his eyes to recognize – not so much to hit it, although it helps hitting mistake breaking balls – but just really training his eyes on what lanes to expect the slider to come out of, say, with runners in scoring position or two-strike counts and really learning which one to lay off, to put himself in position to get favorable counts to get fastballs or get mistake pitches that he can drive.”
Using that hand speed and forearm strength he developed through those homemade exercises and backyard workouts, Almora hit .326 with five homers, 31 RBI and an .850 OPS in 135 tailor-made plate appearances after the All-Star break.
“He just got better and better as the year went on,” Epstein said. “I told him in our (exit) meeting: ‘Look, I'm sure you want me to sit here and say you're an everyday player, hands down, next year. You might be. I can’t promise you that yet. We have to see how everything evolves in the offseason. But I can promise you more. You will have more responsibility. You will have more of a role than you had this year. We’ll see how much more that is, and what you can grow into.’
“He’s excited. He’s moving closer to our spring-training facility in Arizona and ready to get to work.”
Almora’s time is coming, whether or not he’s the 2018 Opening Day center fielder, whether or not it ultimately happens at Wrigley Field. Cubs executives saw that same backyard setup before taking Almora with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft and know how he’s wired and what that could mean for the future.
“The Cubs are such a good team is the (only) reason he’s not playing every day,” Boras said. “I remember we had the conversation when he came to the big leagues. He wasn’t playing, and I said: ‘Albert, the goal here is not learning how to play every day in the big leagues. The goal is learning how to win in the big leagues. You get to learn that at a young age. Take advantage of it, because it’s going to be so valuable. You’re going to be able to share this when you are an everyday player.’”