Cubs

Cubs attempting to tap into Albert Almora Jr.'s offensive upside

Cubs attempting to tap into Albert Almora Jr.'s offensive upside

PEORIA, Ariz. — What if Albert Almora Jr. became a really good big-league hitter?

Cubs fans might start salivating at the thought of that.

Almora has always been highly regarded as a Gold Glove-caliber defender in center field, but the jury isn't out yet on how productive he'll be as a hitter.

Almora — who turns 23 next month — has only a .738 OPS in five minor league seasons despite a .290 average. That's in part due to his low walk rate, but it's also buoyed down by a .416 slugging percentage.

He'll probably never walk a ton (that's just not his approach/style), but Almora did post a .455 slugging percentage in 47 games in the big leagues last season and the Cubs think there's more power to come.

"Albert's really showing why he's such a good baseball player," Joe Maddon said. "Him and the hitting coach have done a lot of good work. There's just a plane to his swing itself; he gets the ball in the air more easily now.

"Beyond that, he's such a good baseball player: He's such a good outfielder, throws well, he's a good baserunner — you saw the tag-up last year [in the World Series]. 

"But more than anything, what makes him play right now is the adjustments they made in the swing, where it's a much more functional big-league swing and there's more power in it."

Almora tripled off the right-field wall in the fifth inning of Friday's 11-10 loss to the Seattle Mariners, missing a home run by just a few feet. (Of course, Almora also made a really nice catch running toward the wall in left-center to rob Kyle Seager of extra bases.)

Prior to Friday, Almora hadn't played since Sunday as he was nursing a sore calf. But he hit a grand slam and doubled in that last game, making it four extra-base knocks this spring, including his last three hits.

Maddon believes he's seeing a different Almora this spring, as the Cubs manager used one of his go-to sayings — "He's more comfortable in his big-league skin" — to describe the difference in a young player's confidence. 

"None of what he's doing surprises me," Maddon said. "I just think he's finally arriving."

[RELATED - How Albert Almora Jr. became a part of the World Series puzzle for Cubs]

Almora has always believed in himself and the abilities and intangibles that helped make him the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft.

But even he admits this spring — and this year — is different.

"I don't feel like it's anything to do with my swing. My swing is the same; it's just little things mentally that transition out physically," Almora said. "For me, it's all been confidence.

"I came in this spring with my confidence at an all-time high. I'm just having a lot of fun working, learning new routines that work for myself and just going out there and letting it eat."

Almora couldn't point to specifics in his routine that have helped him tap into his offensive potential more, but believes it's everything from his tee work to batting practice to where he's standing in the box.

And don't discount the impact of the experience he garnered in the Cubs' road to the championship last fall.

"I've always been comfortable in myself, but now, after we won, I was able to see that my expectations for myself personally are over the top," Almora said. "I feel like personally, there's a lot more improvement for myself of the player I can become.

"So it's going out there and play, let it happen. It's pretty simple."

Cubs fight back after Javy Baez ejection: 'We're not animals'

Cubs fight back after Javy Baez ejection: 'We're not animals'

If baseball wants stars that transcend the game, they need guys like Javy Baez on the field MORE, not less.

That whole debate and baseball's marketing campaign isn't the issue the Cubs took exception with, but it's still a fair point on a nationally-televised Saturday night game between the Cubs and Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Baez was ejected from the game in the bottom of the fifth inning when he threw his bat and helmet in frustration at home plate umpire Will Little's call that the Cubs second baseman did NOT check his swing and, in fact, went around. 

Baez was initially upset that Little made the call himself instead of deferring to first base umpire Ted Barrett for a better view. But as things escalated, Baez threw his bat and helmet and was promptly thrown out of the game by Little.

"I don't think I said anything to disrespect anything or anyone," Baez said after the Cubs' 6-3 loss. "It was a pretty close call. I only asked for him to check the umpire at first and he didn't say anything.

"I threw my helmet and he just threw me out from there. I mean, no reason. I guess for my helmet, but that doesn't have anything to do with him."

Baez and the Cubs would've rather Little check with the umpire who had a better view down the line, but that wasn't even the main point of contention. It was how quickly Little escalated to ejection.

"We're all human," Baez said. "One way or the other, it was gonna be the wrong [call] for one of the teams.

"My message? We're not animals. Sometimes we ask where was a pitch or if it was a strike and it's not always offending them. I think we can talk things out. But I don't think there was anything there to be ejected."

Upon seeing his second baseman and cleanup hitter ejected in the middle of a 1-0 game against a division rival, Joe Maddon immediately got fired up and in Little's face in a hurry.

Maddon was later ejected, as well, and admitted after the game he was never going to leave the field unless he was tossed for protecting his guy.

"He had no reason to kick him out," Maddon said. "He didn't say anything to him. I mean, I watched the video. If you throw stuff, that's a fine. That's fineable. Fine him. That's what I said — fine him — but you cannot kick him out right there.

"He did nothing to be kicked out of that game. He did throw his stuff, whatever, but he did not say anything derogatory towards the umpire.

"...You don't kick Javy out. If he gets in your face and is obnoxious or belligerent or whatever, but he did not. He turned his back to him. That needs to be addressed, on both ends."

Maddon and the Cubs really want Major League Baseball to get involved in this situation. 

There are many other layers to the issue, including veteran Ben Zobrist having to come into the game as Baez's replacement. Maddon was not keen on using the 37-year-old Zobrist for 1.5 games during Saturday's doubleheader and now feels like he has to rest the veteran Sunday to lessen the wear and tear of a difficult stretch for the team.

There's also the matter of the groundball basehit in the eighth inning that tied the game — a seeing-eye single that just got past Zobrist as he dove to his left. It tied the game at 3 and the Cardinals took the lead for good the following inning.

Does Baez make that same play if he were out there instead of Zobrist? It's certainly possible.

"The dynamic of our defense was lessened by [the ejection]," Maddon said. "Again, listen, if it's deserved, I'm good. It was not. They don't need me out there, we need Javy out there.

"And it surprised me. I stand by what I'm saying. It was inappropriate. MLB needs to say something to us that it was inappropriate because it was and it could've led to the loss of that game."

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 37th homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 37th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa's 37th homer of the 1998 season was a big one, an opposite field blast off the front row of fans in right field and into the basket at Wrigley Field.

The eighth-inning 3-run shot gave the Cubs some insurance in a game they ultimately won 9-5 and the Wrigley faithful responded by throwing a bunch of trash on the field.

Earlier in the contest, Sosa tied the game with an RBI single in the fifth inning. He finished with 4 RBI, giving him 93 on the season with more than 2 months left to play.

Fun fact: Vladimir Guerrero was the Expos' No. 3 hitter for this game an dhe also hit a homer (his 20th). Now, Guerrero's son is nearing his MLB debut as a top prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays system.

Fun fact No. 2: Mark Grudzielanek - who later played for the Cubs in 2003-04 - was Montreal's No. 5 hitter for the game at Wrigley. He was traded 10 days later from the Expos to the Los Angeles Dodgers for another fellow Cub - Ted Lilly.