Cubs

Albert Almora Jr. ready to show Cubs he can do bigger and better things

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AP

Albert Almora Jr. ready to show Cubs he can do bigger and better things

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.’”

Is Albert Almora Jr. the answer for Cubs at leadoff?

Is Albert Almora Jr. the answer for Cubs at leadoff?

Can Albert Almora Jr. fill the Dexter Fowler-sized hole atop the Cubs lineup?

Almora and Co. are set for a quick two-game series in Cleveland beginning Tuesday night, the first time the Cubs have stepped foot on Progressive Field after that epic Game 7 that ended a 108-year championship drought.

Fowler led off that game with a home run off Corey Kluber and shortly after, signed with the St. Louis Cardianls, leaving the Cubs scratching their heads for a consistent leadoff hitter since.

Kyle Schwarber was touted as "the guy" to begin 2017, but he struggled mightily, prompting an eventual trip back down to the minors that summer. Ian Happ was supposed to be "the guy" for 2018, but he's gone through similar issues and is currently reduced to a part-time role as he works on the holes in his swing with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

In between, we've seen "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" Anthony Rizzo fill the role for a few games, along with the likes of Jon Jay and Ben Zobrist, among others.

Right now, at least, the answer certainly appears to be the guy who scored the game-winning run in that Game 7.

Almora has drawn the last four starts at leadoff, during which the Cubs won three of those games against two hopeful playoff contenders (St. Louis, Colorado). He's collected a hit in each game — 8 in total — and scored 6 runs.

Oh yeah, and Almora made so many highlight-reel catches in center field over the weekend that he might've just secured the Gold Glove before May's even hit:

Almora is hitting .378 with a .911 OPS in eight starts as the Cubs' leadoff hitter this season, scoring eight runs and even drawing a few walks (3 in 40 plate appearances).

Of course, it is a small sample size still — he entered Sunday's game hitting .419 as a leadoff hitter before going 1-for-6 in the finale in Colorado, meaning one bad game would drastically change those numbers.

But Almora is also doing this against right-handed pitching recently — with three of these last four starts coming against righties (all Cubs wins) — so the past week is yet another example that the Cubs' 24-year-old centerfielder is flashing serious signs of development.

As good as he's been recently, Almora still probably isn't the answer at leadoff long-term for the Cubs.

He's seeing just 3.32 pitches per plate appearance, ranking 346th out of 355 MLB hitters in 2018. That's a far cry from Fowler's 2016 season, when he ranked 4th in baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance, coming in just behind Mike Trout and just ahead of Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt.

When any guy the Cubs throw out as the leadoff hitter is on a hot streak, the offense looks to be firing on all cylinders. But what made Fowler so great atop the order was his ability to take walks regardless of what kind of stretch he was on as a hitter.

Fowler drew a walk in 14.3 percent of his plate appearances in 2016 and boasts a 12.7 career rate. Almora is drawing a free pass 7.5 percent of his times up in 2018, and that's a jump from his 5.7 percent career rate.

"Dexter is an outstanding leadoff hitter," Joe Maddon said when Fowler and the Cardinals visited Wrigley Field last week. "He goes through his moments, too, when he gets hot or cold. But he knew how to do it because even when he wasn't hitting, Dexter was really good at accepting his walks.

"On top of that, he's got this effervescent personality that your team can feedoff of and he was really good about not wearing it on his sleeve when he wasn't going well. On-base percentage was normally floating around that 35 percent mark or better, even when he wasn't hitting well.

"It was nice to have him here to do that. Beyond that, he's such a wonderful teammate and in the clubhouse, he's outstanding. We have not had that stability since he's gone, but we'll figure it out."

The Cubs have scored the most regular-season runs in the National League since that last time Fowler was atop the lineup, but in that span, Cubs leadoff hitters are hitting just .247 with a .326 on-base percentage and .741 OPS.

By comparison, Fowler hit .276 with a .393 on-base percentage and .840 OPS in 2016.

Imagine the potential for this current lineup and for "Bryzzo" in RBI opportunities if the leadoff hitter was getting on base anywhere near the rate of 2016 Fowler.

Almora has just a .335 career on-base percentage and 28 walks in 493 plate appearances, including a .301 career OBP against right-handed pitchers. And that's with this recent hot stretch and a great couple months to end 2017 as the Cubs deployed him in the best situations for him to succeed.

If Almora plays every day, he will probably get overexposed at some point.

So if not Almora, then who? Happ isn't the answer at the moment given his struggles and extreme strikeout rate (43.1 percent).

Ben Zobrist would be perfect and Maddon admitted he would've led off over Almora in the finale against the Cardinals last Thursday if the veteran utility man was not dealing with a back ailment that later landed him on the DL.

Tommy La Stella is another good fit, but where would he play every day? Kyle Schwarber looks like Kyle Schwarber The Hitter again, but after the experiment as a leadoff hitter last season bombed, would anybody really want to risk a setback by inserting him in the spot again?

Jason Heyward left Colorado with a .352 on-base percentage and even though it may come at a complete shock to most Cubs fans, he could be an option to lead off if he shows consistency over a larger sample size. Javy Baez is the only Cubs hitter hotter than Almora, but even though he put together a stretch worthy of a weekly NL honor, he hasn't walked in almost two weeks and has just two unintentional free passes in the first month of the season.

So for now, it's Almora's show and deservedly so. 

But chances are, he's not the guy that's going to bring long-term stability to the Cubs' leadoff position on an everyday basis.

Joe Maddon on Cubs return to Cleveland: It will be fun to walk those steps

Joe Maddon on Cubs return to Cleveland: It will be fun to walk those steps

On Tuesday night, the Cubs will return to Cleveland for the first time since November 2, 2016, the night a 108-year-old curse fell in extra innings and the Cubs won the World Series. The Cubs and the Indians will also be meeting in a regular season game for the first time since Game 7 of the World Series.

"It's going to be interesting of course," manager Joe Maddon said. "Although, part of that whole series is the fact people don't even realize we were down three games to one going back to Cleveland. So you're down, you get it to 3-2 and win that fifth game and you have to win two games on the road in a ballpark where [the Indians] play really, really well. So you got to give our guys a ton of credit. Just the give and take of those games and how our guys battled. We always talked about we never quit and that was our slogan for that year internally.

"It will be fun to walk those steps, the locker room, the weight room where the boys got together and rallied to come out in extra innings and did what they did. It's pretty spectacular. And I think retrospectively when it's all laid out there, years from now, it's going to be looked at as one of the more interesting World Series or Game 7s ever played."

Cleveland has a history of welcoming newly crowned champions back. After winning the NBA Finals in 2015, the Golden State Warriors returned to Quicken Loans Arena the following season and star point guard Stephen Curry said he hoped it still smelled like champagne. It sparked some outrage amongst the Cavaliers faithful and was another bullet point in the Warriors-Cavs rivarly.

The Cubs, at least Maddon, are more focused on reliving those memories rather than gloating. While the 2018 version of the Cubs is similar to the 2016 team and a lot of the star power is still here (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester), a lot of notable players from the 2016 World Series are no longer with the Cubs, like Aroldis Chapman, Dexter Fowler and David Ross. Fowler and Ross each hit pivotal home run in Game 7 of the World Series.

In 2016, the Cubs were the best team in baseball, finishing the season with 103 wins. Heading into this early season match up, the Indians and Cubs are in different positions within their division despite having similar records. The Indians are in first place in the AL Central with an 11-8 record, while the Cubs are in fourth place in the NL Central with a 10-9 record. The Cubs are also coming off a series win against the Colorado Rockies and appear to have sorted out their top of the order quandry with Albert Almora Jr. leading off and starting in center field, in addition to moving Javier Baez's hot bat into the second spot.

It's the first of two games to be played at Progressive Field before the Cubs welcome the Indians to Wrigley Field in May. First pitch on Tuesday night is at 5:10 and 6 p.m. on Wednesday night, which can be streamed on NBC Sports Chicago.