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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."

What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far

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USA TODAY

What the Cubs can learn from the 2019 MLB postseason so far

For the 10 teams that qualify for MLB’s postseason, October represents a chance to climb baseball’s mountain and secure a championship. For the 20 other teams sitting at home, though, October is a chance to evaluate those in the Big Dance.

Less than two weeks into the postseason, here’s some things that the Cubs can take away from the action thus far.

1. Starting pitching matters

With bullpens being relied on more than ever, starting pitchers aren’t used the same way as just a few seasons ago. The Brewers rode their bullpen all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS last season, while the Rays used an “opener” (a reliever who starts a game and pitches 1-3 innings) in Game 4 of the ALDS this season – beating the Astros 4-1.

And yet, the Astros and Nationals are proving how important it is to have a difference-making rotation. The bullpening method can work, but being able to throw Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke at an opponent in a single postseason series is downright unfair.

The Nationals have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in their rotation, as formidable of a trio as any in the National League. They also have Anibal Sánchez, who took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cardinals on Friday. No big deal...

And despite getting eliminated, the Rays — Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton — and Dodgers — Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu — have talented rotations, as do the Cardinals and Yankees.

Meanwhile, the Cubs rotation didn’t have as big of an impact this season as they expected, a contributing factor to the team not making it to October.

“We had really high hopes for our starting group this year," Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "You looked at it 1-through-5, we had a chance to roll out a really quality starter on a nightly basis, and that might be an area that was a separator for us versus some of the teams we were competing with. While we had a couple guys who had really good years and all our starters had their moments, it didn't prove to be a separator.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned. It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well. We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are under contract for 2020, while Jose Quintana has an $11.5 team option. The Cubs don’t have an Astros or Nationals-esque trio, but their rotation can still be good enough to lead the charge in 2020. They’ll need them to do just that if they are to return to the top of the NL Central.

2. Manager decision-making is far more important in October than regular season

The Dodgers’ season came to an abrupt close in Game 5 of the NLDS, with manager Dave Roberts being smack dab in the spotlight.

With the Dodgers leading 3-1 in the seventh inning, Roberts called Clayton Kershaw’s number to get Los Angeles out of a two on, two out jam. Kershaw did just that, but the Nationals opened the eighth with home runs from Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto (on consecutive pitches) to tie the game.

Kershaw is one of the best pitchers in his generation, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and one-time NL MVP. However, his postseason woes are real (4.43 ERA, 32 games/25 starts), and therefore, Roberts made a questionable decision going with Kershaw in that moment. 

Where was Kenta Maeda to face Rendon? Maeda had allowed just a single hit in 3 2/3 innings at this point in the postseason. He took over for Kershaw after Soto’s home run, striking out three-straight Dodgers to end the eighth. 

Roberts also didn't bring in closer Kenley Jansen to start the 10th inning, when the game was still tied 3-3. Instead, he left in Joe Kelly, who allowed a decisive grand slam to Howie Kendrick. Only then did Jansen come in, but the damage was done. Not bringing in your closer in an extra-inning postseason game is inexcusable, and while it may be outcome bias, this game proves why.

Roberts has 393 wins in four seasons as Dodgers manager, leading them to World Series appearances in 2017 and 2018. Even with that experience, though, he made a bad decision at a terrible time. The postseason is a different animal, not only for players, but the coaches in the dugouts, too.

Of the known candidates the Cubs have interviewed for manager — David Ross, Joe Girardi, Mark Loretta and Will Venable — only Girardi has big-league managing experience. And while Epstein noted at his press conference that it isn’t everything, he added that experience is important.

"Lack of experience - and I'm speaking broadly for the group, not necessarily [about Ross] - is always a factor,” Epstein said. “It's not a determining factor, but it's a significant factor. I always have greater comfort level hiring for roles in which the person has done the role before. Especially with manager.

“But I think there are ways for that to be overcome - there are a lot of different ways to get experience in this game - beliefs, skills, personal attributes, those can outweigh a lack of experience, but experience certainly helps.”

3. Winning in the postseason is tough

After the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, there was a feeling that baseball’s next dynasty was underway. After all, the Cubs had a talented, young position player group that reached the promised land early in their time together. It made sense.

Those talks have died down, of course, as the Cubs haven’t even appeared in the World Series since 2016. And while they've had plenty of success since 2015, it feels like they could’ve had more.

The thing about baseball, though, is that it’s extremely hard to sustain those high levels of success. A few teams (Red Sox, Cardinals, Giants) have won multiple World Series this century, none have repeated as champions since the Yankees, who won three-straight from 1998-2000.

The Twins won 101 games this season and were swept out of the ALDS. The Braves won 97, only to lose Game 5 of the NLDS in brutal fashion at home to the Cardinals.

The Dodgers made it to the World Series in 2017 and 2018 and came up empty both times. They won 106 games this season, a franchise record, only to be eliminated in the NLDS by the Nationals — a Wild Card team, nonetheless.

Does that make last few seasons even more frustrating for the Cubs and their fans? Probably. October is a crapshoot, meaning as long as a team gets in, they have a shot at winning it all, no matter their record.

At the same time, the Cubs made things look easy in 2016. They had brilliant injury luck, a historic defense, a deep position player group, a loaded starting rotation and the right manager for their young core. Even so, it took erasing a 3-to-1 series deficit against the Indians to win it all, not to mention a dramatic Game 7 win that nearly didn’t go their way.

This isn’t an excuse for the Cubs shortcomings in 2019, but merely a reminder: they won the 2016 World Series, and that's no small feat. This offseason offers the chance to improve as a team for 2020, when they’ll set out to win again.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Kap breaks down the Cubs managerial search

David Kaplan shares his thoughts on the Cubs, the decision to move on from Joe Maddon (0:50), the process in hiring a new manager (2:40), and who should be in the dugout next season (4:05).

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Cubs Talk Podcast

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