Detroit Tigers

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.’”

Justin Wilson running out of time to become X-factor for Cubs playoff bullpen

Justin Wilson running out of time to become X-factor for Cubs playoff bullpen

ST. LOUIS – “It’s a big boys’ game,” Joe Maddon said late Tuesday night after taking the ball away from Justin Wilson in the middle of an at-bat, another alarming sign that the lefty reliever will be outside the manager’s circle of trust, assuming the Cubs put him on the playoff roster.

The Cubs acquired Wilson and catcher Alex Avila before the July 31 trade deadline in a package deal with the Detroit Tigers that was supposed to strengthen the bullpen for a World Series title defense. It would give Maddon another late-game option after he took so much heat for the way he used one All-Star closer last year (Aroldis Chapman) and tried to preserve another (Wade Davis) this season.

Except Wilson has looked nothing like the guy who thrived in the American League East with the 2015 New York Yankees (5-0, 3.10 ERA in 74 appearances) and saved 13 games for the Tigers this year.

Maddon had a quick hook once the Cubs exploded for four runs in the eighth inning at Busch Stadium, turning an 8-3 blowout into a one-run game against the St. Louis Cardinals. With the magic number to celebrate a National League Central title down to one, Maddon watched Wilson walk Carson Kelly on five pitches and fall into a 2-0 count against Harrison Bader before summoning Carl Edwards Jr.

“Last night was just not the time to permit it to work itself out,” Maddon said Wednesday. “I thought the way we had come back in that game, to not give ourselves a chance would have been inappropriate, because I don’t like to use C.J. in that situation. But I thought we had a shot.

“I told him right afterwards, I said: ‘Man, you’re going to be right back out there.’ He started out well, the first-pitch strike, beautiful delivery, and then all of a sudden started pulling a couple pitches. I know they’ve done some nice things with his delivery. And I still believe that it’s going to work. But for last night, I could not be overly patient.”

Wilson confirmed what pitching coach Chris Bosio told WSCR-AM 670, the team’s flagship radio station, that he woke up with a “stiff neck” the other day: “A little annoying, but nothing I can’t deal with.”

What do you need to see from Wilson before the regular season ends on Sunday at Wrigley Field and the Cubs ramp up playoff preparations for the Washington Nationals?

“Just to throw consistent strikes,” Maddon said. “It’s not (that) every pitch is going to be a strike, but if he misses a little bit wide with one or two that he can come back into the zone and make his own adjustments.”

Only three days earlier, Maddon talked up Wilson as a potential game-changer after watching him get four outs against the top of the Milwaukee Brewers’ lineup at Miller Park, unleashing 17 fastballs in a row clocked at 95-97 mph.

But it’s hard to see Maddon giving Wilson the ball to face Bryce Harper or Daniel Murphy when his trend line looks like this as a Cub: 18 walks, 17 hits, 11 runs in 15.2 innings.

“Today is a new day,” Wilson said as a pack of reporters swarmed his locker inside the visiting clubhouse. “I go back out there and do what I do.”

Wade Davis is the big-game hunter Cubs need now - and maybe in the future

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USA TODAY

Wade Davis is the big-game hunter Cubs need now - and maybe in the future

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The origin story of Wade Davis transforming into a dominant closer goes back several years ago and involves a black bear on Canadian hunting grounds about 90 minutes outside of Toronto.

This is the rare animal that didn’t make the video tribute the Tampa Bay Rays cut for Cubs manager Joe Maddon when their ex-zookeeper returned this week to Tropicana Field. But if Davis could stay cool facing a 300-something-pound beast, Maddon reasoned, then a late-inning jam shouldn’t seem so daunting.

“You don’t get much reaction from Wade,” Dave Martinez, Maddon’s longtime bench coach, said on the Cubs Talk podcast. “What you see is what you get. I (asked): ‘Hey, I got a place to go bear hunting, you guys want to go?’

“If you can imagine (Wade) and Jeff Niemann — Jeff Niemann’s 6-10 — they sat up in a tree stand. They saw a black bear come out and he shot it. I wish we had the video. The video’s floating around somewhere.

“We were just talking about it the other day. (Former Rays travel director) Jeff Ziegler went with us, too, and he never did get his bear rug. And he got a little bent out of shape about it.”

Martinez doesn’t know where that trophy wound up. But Davis remains the big-game hunter the Cubs need now — and maybe for the future.

“I’m not thinking past the next two weeks, honestly,” team president Theo Epstein said. “It’s bad form to be talking about offseason stuff at this time of the year.

“He’s had a great year. He’s been perfect in save situations. He’s been a leader out there. Any team would love to have him. But we’re not into the winter yet.”

Are the Cubs willing to pay the price for an All-Star, World-Series-tested closer? Can they afford not to?

Epstein’s front office has been philosophically opposed to making long-term investments in closers. But the Cubs are running out of young hitters to trade for short-term fixes, shipping an elite prospect (Gleyber Torres) to the New York Yankees in last summer’s blockbuster Aroldis Chapman deal and getting Davis by moving a diminishing asset (Jorge Soler) to the Kansas City Royals in a winter-meetings swap.

The Cubs also haven’t seen that alternative ninth-inning solution organically develop this season. It’s hard to picture the Cubs just handing Carl Edwards Jr. the closer’s job heading into his second full season in the big leagues. Pedro Strop also looks more like a very good setup guy than a first-choice candidate to be the 2018 closer.

Justin Wilson (5.79 ERA) hasn’t distinguished himself since coming over from the Detroit Tigers at the July 31 trade deadline, the Cubs now using the lefty reliever in low-leverage/mop-up situations to help restore his game. Hector Rondon — who has 77 saves in a Cubs uniform and a checkered medical history — is dealing with right elbow inflammation.

All those moving pieces make Davis (32-for-32 in save chances) an anchor heading into the four-game showdown against the Milwaukee Brewers that begins Thursday night at Miller Park, where Jake Arrieta will be making his first start since straining his right hamstring on Labor Day and limited to 75-80 pitches.

The Cubs have a 3.5-game lead on a Brewers team that hasn’t gone away yet and a single-digit magic number (eight) to clinch the National League Central. Maddon has already signaled that he will deploy Davis for multiple innings when necessary.

“It’s a good feeling to know that he can do it,” Martinez said. “But all in all, you still have to have these other guys contribute, which they have, and get all the bullpen onboard.

“Now each moment is critical and moving forward they’re going to be put in some pretty tough situations. Each one of them has to step up and do their jobs.

“Do we count on Wade? Absolutely. But we also count on these other guys to go out there and perform.”

During the All-Star festivities in Miami, Davis said “some of that seems unrealistic” when asked about the massive free-agent contracts the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers gave Chapman (five years, $86 million) and Kenley Jansen (five years, $80 million) last winter.

But this October will be another huge platform for Davis, who said it already felt like that all season at Wrigley Field.

“Every game, there’s always a constant buzz here,” Davis said. “They’re into it. They’re getting loud. It’s a great atmosphere all year long.”