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."

Theo Epstein and the ‘three masters’ Cubs are trying to serve this offseason

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein and the ‘three masters’ Cubs are trying to serve this offseason

One of the best parts of Cubs Convention is the access fans have to the organization’s biggest figures. Whether in passing in the convention’s hotel lobby or during hour-long panels, fans have opportunities to meet members of the Cubs and ask legitimate questions on the state of the team.

An example occurred Saturday, when a fan had his two minutes of fame during the baseball operations panel.

“The fact that it has been a slower offseason and the fact that it’s pretty obvious we don’t want to increase payroll,” the fan said to team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. “I know we have a high payroll already, so it’s not like the money hasn’t been spent. Has the slow offseason, [has] it just been attributable to the luxury tax, or are there more factors in play, or at least factors that you can talk about?"

For the second straight year, the Cubs arrived at their fan festival having made little moves to upgrade a roster that ended the previous season on a disappointing note. As the fan said, MLB’s luxury tax threshold clearly is an issue. If the Cubs exceed the threshold ($208 million) again, they’ll be taxed 30 percent on their overages and see their 2021 draft pick drop 10 spots, should they eclipse the threshold by $40 million.

For a team that hasn’t had the most success in the draft in recent years, all while not winning in or even making the postseason — despite holding one of MLB’s biggest payrolls (projected just over $209 million in 2020) — those potential penalties are enough to give pause.

“Your question, the way you asked it, is perfect,” Epstein said to the fan. “It outlines the challenges we have. Transparency is very, very important to us. We do the best we can to always tell the truth and always be as open and candid as we can. We think you guys deserve that.”

The Cubs have been knocked in recent years for a lack of transparency. That matters, but there are some areas where they won’t show their hand. Budgets and player payrolls are examples, as revealing too much would hurt them when negotiating deals with agents and opposing clubs.

“But obviously I’m not going to insult you guys,” Epstein added. “Clearly, how we’ve positioned ourselves relative to the collective bargaining tax and the impact of going over multiple years in a row and the effects of that long-term is a factor in the offseason. It’s one of those obstacles that we’ve talked about that we have to find a way to navigate around.”

Fans frustrated by the Cubs sitting idly this offseason and last are quick to point out the luxury tax is merely a de facto salary cap. The financial consequences aren’t overbearing — the Cubs paid $7.6 million in overages in 2019, a small cost for a big market team.

The Cubs aren’t rebuilding and intend to compete in 2020, but their farm system has grown barren from years of win-now moves and struggling to develop impactful homegrown talent. And, on top of all that, many of their core players — Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber — are projected to hit free agency after 2021.

Add that all up, and the Cubs find themselves in a purgatory of sorts as spring training nears.

“I’m going to be honest and self-critical. If we had done our jobs a lot better the last couple years, those same obstacles might be there, but they wouldn’t be as pressing,” Epstein said. “We would have a little bit more flexibility. Any outside factor, like how you position yourself relative to the tax or budgets, is important, but there’s always a way to anticipate that and do your jobs in such a manner that you can get around it.”

Between the desire to compete in 2020, remain competitive long-term and gain financial flexibility, members of the Cubs core have been fixtures of trade rumors all offseason. Dealing Bryant, for example, would give the Cubs payroll relief ($18.6 million salary in 2020) and net the team young, controllable players/prospects. It also would cost the Cubs one of their best players.

At his end-of-season press conference in 2018, Epstein threatened roster changes could occur, though the Cubs largely brought back the same group for 2019. After the club underperformed, winning 84 games, he again hinted changes could be coming.

The Cubs have overhauled their baseball operations up-and-down the organization, but it’s beginning to look like status quo will reign king once again. Bryant’s unresolved grievance case is a factor here, but the club ultimately is struggling to make the right moves to help the team now and moving forward.

“Right now, we’ve been struggling to find the types of transactions that can thread that needle, that can make us better in 2020 and improve our chances of winning the World Series in 2020,” Epstein said, “that at the same time position us so that we don’t run the risk of falling off a cliff after 2021, when a lot of our best players are scheduled to leave and also can get us where we should be relative to the CBT and relative to budgets to ensure a little bit healthier financial picture going forward in the future.

“It’s difficult, it’s not impossible. Probably most of the moves we’re going to make are not going to be able to serve all three of those masters. You might see a move that makes us a lot healthier for the long-term future, which is important to us and we should be doing those types of things, but might create a little more risk for 2020, where you might see a move that…a move that makes us better for 2020, and that’s important.

“We really need to try to improve and take risk away from the roster, but that’s gonna hurt us a little bit down the line after 2021. This is one of those winters where it’s really hard to thread the needle and we’re doing the best we can. I would say to hang with us, and hopefully by the time Opening Day rolls around, we’ve improved the 2020 team, we’ve done some things that maybe don’t improve the ’20 team but ensure a better future and then to our bosses and for our future, we’ve also done a responsible job financially to set us up for long-term fiscal health.”

With Opening Day nine weeks away, there's still time for the Cubs to make a significant move to their roster. Making one that checks all three of Epstein's boxes, however, is a much greater — potentially impossible — task.

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Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich puts Nolan Arenado trade talks to bed

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USA TODAY

Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich puts Nolan Arenado trade talks to bed

Were you hoping the Cubs could pull off a miraculous deal for Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado? If so, at ease.

In an interview with Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post, Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich squashed any chance of Arenado getting dealt this winter.

“With the season coming up and spring training on the horizon, we are going to start focusing on that,” Bridich told Saunders. “We have listened to teams regarding Nolan and really nothing has come of it. We are going to move forward pretty much as we expected — with Nolan in the purple and black and as our third baseman.

“So, we can put this to bed and collectively look forward to the upcoming season and work toward that.”

There you have it.

The chances of the Cubs swinging an Arenado deal were always slim-to-none. The 28-year-old signed a lucrative contract extension with Colorado last February and is still owed $234 million through 2026. The Cubs have money coming off the books each of the next few seasons, but they would have had to clear payroll to acquire Arenado this offseason.

Furthermore, it’s questionable if the Cubs would have put together an enticing enough package for the Rockies. Chicago's farm system has grown barren through the years, and now that it’s slowly improving, it wouldn’t have made sense to trade prospects away.

Monday’s news isn’t completely bad for Cubs fans. The Cardinals were also reportedly interested in Arenado, and Bridich’s statement means St. Louis won’t be acquiring Arenado anytime soon, either.

Update: Things might just be getting started in Colorado...

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