Albert Almora’s time with Cubs is now: ‘Dream come true’

Albert Almora’s time with Cubs is now: ‘Dream come true’

PHILADELPHIA – The warp-speed development for first-round picks Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber altered the perception of Albert Almora Jr., who would now only be in his first full season of professional baseball if he had stayed close to his Cuban-American family in South Florida and gone to the University of Miami.

The Cubs still pictured Almora in a leading role for their youth movement at Wrigley Field when the teenage outfielder became the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein administration with the sixth overall pick in 2012 (or five spots ahead of the Oakland A’s grabbing shortstop Addison Russell).

Almora’s time is now, less than two months after his 22nd birthday, the opening created when an MRI confirmed Jorge Soler’s strained left hamstring would force him onto the disabled list. 

Almora rolled into Citizens Bank Park’s visiting clubhouse at 4:13 p.m. on Tuesday, hugging Bryant and hitting coach John Mallee, shaking hands with reporters and walking into manager Joe Maddon’s office before making his big-league debut during a 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.   

“This is a dream come true,” said Almora, who grounded out to third base against Phillies starter Jerad Eickhoff as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning. “I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”

“You could see the joy on his face,” Maddon said. 

Almora had already spoken with his mother, Ana, after Monday night’s game with Triple-A Iowa when he received the phone call from manager Marty Pevey informing him about the Soler situation. Almora called back and told his mom to wake up his father, Albert Sr., who’s battling prostate cancer.       

“My dad obviously would love to be here, but he’s going through some radiation treatment,” Almora said. “He’s got to take care of that first. I know he’ll be watching today, for sure, and he’ll be out sooner or later. 

“He’s almost done (and) he’s doing well. He’s just getting finished clearing it out and he’ll be a new man again.”

Almora flew from Des Moines to Minneapolis to Philadelphia, earning the promotion after hitting .318 through his first 54 games at the Triple-A l level. He’s viewed as a potential Gold Glove defender with the ability to handle all three spots in the outfield. 

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he has all the ability to do it,” Bryant said. “Defensively, he’s the best center fielder I’ve ever seen. 

“He’ll add a lot to our team on both sides and in the clubhouse. He’s a great kid to be around and has a lot of energy. He just fits really well with what Joe has been preaching here.”

Almora has historically been a very good Cactus League performer, a slower starter in the minor leagues and somewhat injury-prone. He’s walked only 72 times in more than 1,500 at-bats in the minors, never finishing a season with double-digit home runs. But the Cubs have seen a better approach, a right-handed hitter driving the ball with more authority.     

“I don’t think he gets enough credit for what he does offensively,” Bryant said. “Everybody knows who he is defensively and how (good) his routes are out there (and) his arm and all that. 

“But in the (Arizona) Fall League, I felt like he was going to get a hit every time. He was that guy – a presence in the box.”

Bryant – an All-Star third baseman and the National League’s reigning Rookie of the Year – will continue to get playing time in the outfield with Soler sidelined. The Cubs thought they created enough outfield depth when they signed Dexter Fowler in spring training, but it’s been compromised since Schwarber’s season-ending collision in early April and reconstructive surgery on his left knee.  

Soler’s medical history creates an opportunity for Almora, who can be matched up against left-handed starters and become a late-game defensive replacement. The Cubs don’t need a franchise savior anymore, just a solid role player for the team with the best record in baseball.  

“I feel like I’ve learned so much about myself in these last couple years and I’m just super-excited,” Almora said. “I’ve been playing baseball since I was four years old. This is what every kid dreams about.”

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes


Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."