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Albert Almora is playing with confidence for Cubs

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Albert Almora is playing with confidence for Cubs

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - It almost looked like Albert Almora was already running toward a spot before the ball was even hit.

The Cubs centerfield prospect made another highlight-reel catch in Sunday's 4-2 Cactus League loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Sloan Park.

Almora has a knack for making those big-time catches and the Cubs see the 21-year-old playing with a lot of confidence right now.

"That was amazing," Miguel Montero said of Almora's catch. "I saw him make one of those last year in Double-A. It was a phenomenal catch.

"He's a pretty good athlete. He's got so much talent. He's come with a pretty good presence [in camp] so far. He's playing hard.

"He's just a kid. Sometimes they have to mature, and right now, he looks a little bit more mature than last year."

If Montero's right, that would bode well for the Cubs.

Almora's baseball IQ and intangibles have always rated highly and his defense in center has probably been big-league ready for a while.

His spectacular catch Saturday wasn't just about athleticism or "being in the right spot at the right time" (which is how Almora tried to shrug it off).

Almora knew the hitter's tendencies, knew where he should be playing and also knew Cubs pitcher Ryan Williams, who is a ground ball pitcher but apparently has a knack for setting Almora up with highlight-reel plays during their time spent playing together.

"I'd definitely rather rob a homer than hit one," Almora said. "That's just the way I am. 

"I take [defense] to heart. I want to help the team win and I know it's hard offensively at times, but defensively, I feel like I should be perfect. 

"I'm not happy if I don't have a perfect season on defense, to be completely honest. I know it's a crazy thing to say, but that's just the way I am. ... I want to make pitchers happy."

Joe Maddon is all about mindset and the Cubs manager appreciates that approach.

"Obviously defense is the one part of your game that you should be able to bring and almost hit 1.000 at," Maddon said. "You can't hit 1.000 at the plate, but you can get close to 1.000 on defense if you're focused and your work's good.

"So I can understand to strive for perfection on defense. Maybe knowing that you can't be, but as an outfielder, you can be pretty darn close. I kinda like that. ... Guys that are really able to take the right mindset for defense on a daily basis wins games, man."

Almora struggled at the plate in 2014, hitting .270 with a .683 OPS, walking only 14 times in 125 games. 

He was off to a slow start offensively last season before a torrid August (.352 average, .917 OPS) helped raise his overall numbers to a .272 average and .727 OPS.

That final month of the season wasn't the result of a mechanical adjustment, but more about approach and confidence.

"I'm just being more aggressive, swinging harder and trying to get my pitch to hit so I could drive it," Almora said. "That's basically it.

"I'm confident at the plate. If I strike out, I strike out, but I'm trying to hit the ball hard."

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Almora hit a ball hard in back-to-back games over the weekend, drilling a double into the left-field corner Saturday and a gapper in right-center Sunday.

If Almora can start producing offensively, the former No. 36 prospect in the game (Baseball America, 2014) could be knocking on the door of the big leagues. If all goes well, he's projected to start the season in Triple-A Iowa.

Almora was the first draft pick of the Theo Epstein administration as the sixth overall selection in 2012. But he hasn't taken the same fast-track path of Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, who were drafted in the first round in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer cautioned it isn't fair to look at Almora - who turns 22 in April - in the same light as college sluggers like Bryant or Schwarber. 

In a way, the lack of hype surrounding Cubs prospects coming up now could be an advantage.

"Those guys aren't going to be expected to come up and be centerpieces anymore," Hoyer said. "They may be able to come in — like any young players on a quality team — and their entire focus can be helping the team win, being a complementary piece and then growing into that.

"Give a lot of credit to a guy like Kris or Anthony [Rizzo] or Kyle - those guys had to come up and they were expected right away to hit in the middle of the lineup, be really significant contributors. I'm really glad that we're past that and I think our young guys can break in in a way more stable way than our guys have in the past.

"At 22, [Almora's] likely going to be a big part of our organization probably in Triple-A. We're excited to see if he can build on what he did in August."

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

If the season ended today, Javy Baez may be your National League MVP.

Of course, the season isn't ending today, only the first half of the 2018 campaign is.

He flashed his skills again over the weekend — scoring the game-winning run Friday, posting a 5-RBI game Saturday and then drove in the Cubs' first run in their 7-4 victory Sunday to close out a sweep of the Padres.

Entering the All-Star Break, Baez should be the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.

For starters, he's the best player on the best team in the league.

Thanks to a recent hot surge by the Cubs and an ugly weekend for the Brewers (who have lost 6 straight), Baez and Co. will go into the break with the best record in the NL. 

Baez, meanwhile, leads the Cubs in WAR and nearly every offensive category — OPS, slugging percentage, homers, RBI, runs scored, doubles, triples, total bases, stolen bases and hits.

And that's not even saying anything about his glovework at any position on the infield or dynamic baserunning.

He's on pace to become the first Cubs player to drive in 125 runs since Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Baez also is on track for a 30-30 season — something only Sosa accomplished in a Cubs uniform in 1993 and 1995. 

El Mago will enjoy his week in the Home Run Derby and as the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, but those shouldn't be the end of his accolades this year if he can find a way to keep this pace up in the second half.

What other NL candidate would be a better choice for the MVP right now?

Baez is tied for the league lead in RBI. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar is just behind Baez with 70 RBI, but he also has 70 fewer at-bats than the Cubs star due to a platoon to begin the year. 

Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are also having great years, but the Reds are nowhere close to a playoff spot. 

Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are also having very good seasons on teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, but how do you deny the best player on the league's best team?

After all, where would the Cubs be without Baez this season? 

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, the pitching staff has had all kinds of consistency/health woes and Willson Contreras has yet to find his power stroke at the plate.

At the very least, "El Mago" has been the most important player on the North Side of Chicago during the first 3.5 months of 2018.

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Cubs first-round pick Nico Hoerner made his debut with the Class-A South Bend Cubs, and he did not disappoint.

The 23-year old shortstop showed off impressive hops during an acrobatic grab in the topf of the second inning in his first game with the South Bend Cubs. Hoerner will surely be an exciting defensive prospect with ability like this.

As far as offense goes, through four at-bats at South Bend, Hoerner is batting .500, and this comes after he hit .318 with a home run and two RBI through seven games with the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs Class A short-season affiliate.

Here is to hoping we continue to see big-time plays from Hoerner.