Albert Almora will drive a hard bargain with Cubs


Albert Almora will drive a hard bargain with Cubs

MILWAUKEE For Albert Almora, it was either a pool or a batting cage, and that wasnt really a choice at all.

Almora credited his fathers imagination for turning the backyard of their South Florida home into a training ground for one of the best amateur players in the country, the No. 6 overall pick in the draft.

Cubs executives visited the house, and the MLB Network gave a glimpse into Almoras world the cage, the pull-up bar and the rope tied to a tree for climbing.

This sport runs in my veins, Almora said.

Jason McLeod, who oversees scouting and player development for the Cubs, raved about Almoras work ethic and internal drive. So its hard to imagine someone wired this way turning down an opportunity like this.

But it was interesting to listen to the 18-year-old outfielder from Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens, whos being advised by agent Scott Boras and trying to create some leverage.

My main priority right now is college, Almora said Tuesday on a conference call. I just graduated high school right now and I have a full scholarship to the University of Miami and thats what Im looking forward to.

When the times right and everything works out, then itll happen. But for right now my main priority is the University of Miami.

Ill guarantee that Im ready for major-league baseball, but well have to see what happens.

Almora didnt attach too much significance to being the first draft choice of the Theo Epstein administration: Im just happy to be picked by a major-league club. Its something that Ive worked for all my life.

But McLeods first pick (No. 65) running the draft for the Boston Red Sox in 2004 was an undersized player from Arizona State University named Dustin Pedroia, who would go on to win a World Series ring and become the American League MVP in 2008.

If there are great expectations, the Cubs liked how Almora was drawn to the higher levels of competition, playing year-round for elite travel teams in Florida and winning five gold medals for Team USA.

The front office surely has an idea of what it will take to sign Almora under the new, restrictive collective bargaining agreement. The bonus recommended by the commissioners office is 3.25 million, according to Baseball America.

In my mind, I trust my abilities and I know what I can do on the field, but thats not the priority right now, Almora said. We have to let everything the process play out and let the cards fall where they have to fall. I cant control that. Thats something that Chicago has to talk about with their organization and come to an agreement.

Cubs manager Dale Sveum watched video of Almora before the draft and came away impressed with his effortless swing.

That guys pretty far ahead of the game with his mechanics, Sveum said. He does a lot of (the) things that a lot of good hitters do, (the kind) of things that pan out in the long run.

Looking to the future and trying to address the organizations biggest need the Cubs selected seven straight pitchers after Almora.

Through the first two days, the Cubs have picked 11 pitchers, one infielder, three outfielders and two catchers. Eleven players are from college and six are out of high school. The draft ends Wednesday with rounds 16-40.

The new labor deal pushed up the deadline to sign draft picks to July 13. The Cubs will be looking to close on a player they feel can push teammates and lead by example.

All I can guarantee from me is that Im going to play the game 120 percent, Almora said. I cant guarantee that Ill hit four or five home runs, but Ill be giving it my all every day.

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”

What Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan trades mean for future of Blackhawks defense

What Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan trades mean for future of Blackhawks defense

After finishing 30th in goals against average (3.55) and 31st in penalty kill percentage (72.7) this past season, the Blackhawks are clearly making it a priority to patch up their defense this summer. And that's been evident with the acquisitions of defensive-minded defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta.

But it raises some interesting questions about the future of the Blackhawks blue line.

With the de Haan and Maatta additions, the Blackhawks now have five defensemen under contract through at least the 2021-22 season: Brent Seabrook ($6.875 million cap hit), Duncan Keith ($5.538 million), de Haan ($4.55 million), Maatta ($4.083 million) and Connor Murphy ($3.85 million). That's $24.8 million tied up to five guys.

The money isn't the primary concern, though. It's the limited amount of roster spots available. The Blackhawks don't have to immediately figure out how it's going to work a year from now and beyond, but it makes you wonder how the cards may eventually be shuffled.

Let's run through the situations:

— Erik Gustafsson had a breakout season and is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. He's obviously not part of the five current players under contract after next season, putting the Blackhawks in a spot where they have to consider trading him or be comfortable with letting him walk for nothing if he isn't re-signed. (They could always trade his negotiating rights after next season and pull off a sign-and-trade as well, if it came to that).

And even if Gustafsson is re-signed, the Blackhawks would then have six players locked up for the 2020-21 season and on, and that's enough to submit a lineup.

— Henri Jokiharju, who was drafted No. 29 overall in 2017, is probably ready to take the next step and become an everyday player. Where does he fit into the long-term plans?

— Adam Boqvist, who was taken No. 8 overall in 2018, likely needs one more year in the OHL before making the jump to the NHL, which would put him on a timeline to become part of the Blackhawks next season. Does he occupy that sixth spot if another one isn't opened by then?

— Nicolas Beaudin, who was drafted No. 27 overall in 2018, is expected to start the upcoming season in Rockford after four years in the QMJHL but might be NHL-ready by the 2020-21 campaign.

— And then there's Ian Mitchell, who's returning to Denver for his junior season and will serve as the team's captain. He's said all along that he intends to sign with the Blackhawks once he's finished with college, but does the organization value him enough to create a spot for him when he's ready?

To make things a little more complicated, the Seattle expansion draft is set to occur in 2021 and the same rules will apply as Vegas in 2017.

The Blackhawks have the option to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters and one goaltender. All players with no-movement clauses at the time of the expansion draft (and who decline to waive them) must be protected; Keith and Seabrook have a NMC. And all first- and second-year pros are exempt; Jokiharju would have to be protected.

As of this moment, the Blackhawks are likely to use the eight-skater option, but they will also have valuable forwards to protect. They're going to lose a good player one way or another, and it's probably going to come from the defensive group. All of this comes into play when weighing roster decisions for next season and beyond.

As stated above, the Blackhawks do not have to make an immediate decision on the future of their blue line corps. They can play out the 2019-20 season with the group as currently constructed. But the decisions the Blackhawks have to face next season could impact how Stan Bowman operates the rest of this summer and throughout the upcoming campaign.

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