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."