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.”