Cubs

Albert Almora made a strong impression in Cubs camp

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Albert Almora made a strong impression in Cubs camp

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.

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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.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.