Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber’s fast track to stardom has forced even those inside the Cubs organization to reset expectations for prospects like Albert Almora and remember what a normal path to The Show looks like.
It’s not just prospect bloggers, the Chicago media and impatient Cubs fans needing that reminder. It’s a message Jason McLeod stressed during offseason meetings with minor-league coordinators after an unexpected run to the National League Championship Series.
Bryant, Schwarber and Addison Russell spoiled everyone, playing only 105 games at Triple-A Iowa combined before becoming key playoff contributors for a 97-win team in Chicago, showing uncommon poise and rolling up a 10.9 WAR rating.
“With Kris and Kyle and Addison, it was such a short time period that we had them,” said McLeod, the vice president who oversees scouting and player development. “While we should feel good about it, let’s certainly not sit back and say: ‘Look what we did.’ Because we didn’t do a whole lot with those guys – they were special players.
“So for us, the challenge is Gleyber Torres is still two or three years out as a 19-year-old (shortstop). What can we do with him to develop him fundamentally, mentally and make sure he’s ready when his time comes? And just going down the list of our next core group of players that we think are going to be those guys.”
The Cubs had that in mind when they made Almora the first player drafted here by the Theo Epstein administration in 2012, projecting a high floor as a contact hitter and elite defender in center field, betting on his experience with Team USA, exposure to elite competition in South Florida and solid Cuban-American family structure.
The Cubs used top-four picks on college hitters in the next two drafts, taking a University of San Diego third baseman at No. 2 overall in 2013 and surprising the industry by making a below-slot deal with an Indiana University catcher/outfielder in 2014.
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While Bryant became an All-Star and a Rookie of the Year – and Schwarber turned into a Wrigleyville legend with five postseason home runs – Almora had an underwhelming year at Double-A Tennessee.
“We recalibrate just by staying as objective as you can on your evaluations of the player,” McLeod said, “and understanding that this is abnormal what these guys are doing. As much as we want all of our players to try to get to that level, there’s still a process in place of meeting certain goals as they go throughout their development.
“If (Almora) went to college, he’d be in Eugene right now rather than in Double-A, so I think you’re always looking at your players through that lens of the process.
“And every now and then you are going to get these guys, whether it’s our guys or Correa (who) just explode through the minor leagues.”
That would be Carlos Correa, who worked out at Wrigley Field before the 2012 draft and blossomed into last season’s American League Rookie of the Year. There was a sense around the Cubs that if the Houston Astros hadn’t taken Correa with the first overall pick that year, the dynamic shortstop might have dropped to them at No. 6, where they instead took Almora out of Mater Academy.
The Cubs passed on Russell, believing he had been out of shape and too unpredictable coming out of Pace High School in Florida. At a certain point in the predraft process, you have to pick your lane with teenage prospects, and the Cubs didn’t really have a strong relationship or comfort level with Russell.
With the Cubs locked in on Almora, Russell fell to the Oakland A’s at No. 11 in that first round. Billy Beane went for it in 2014 and mortgaged the future as the Cubs made Russell the centerpiece to the Jeff Samardzija deal. Russell replacing Starlin Castro and taking over at shortstop last summer would be a turning point for what became the hottest team in baseball.
“Certainly, I think Albert (is) going to have a good year,” McLeod said. “Because with the success of the other guys, we forget Albert’s 21 this year going into the (season). He’s young still – and hopefully he’s healthy – and he’ll be at Triple-A as a 21-year-old to open the season.”
A scout who appreciates Almora’s overall game noticed that he seemed adrift last summer at Tennessee, at least before a strong August (.917 OPS) boosted his overall numbers (.272 average with six homers, 26 doubles, 46 RBI in 106 games).
“We have to remember (that) he’s still understanding what it takes to be successful in the higher levels,” farm director Jaron Madison said. “Approach is big for him. I think he really started to buy into it towards the end of (last) year, getting pitches he can drive and not just put into play. And not being afraid to get to two strikes – because he never strikes out – (and) really trying to drive those balls that he should be hitting hard.
“Now it’s understanding where he is in his career – and how close he is. I think he’s going to take a big step forward this year.”
Maybe the Cubs wind up using Almora as a trade chip if they need a frontline pitcher before the July 31 deadline. Or maybe he makes another good impression in big-league camp and eventually finds himself pouring champagne all over Bryant and Schwarber in October.
“It just motivates me,” Almora told MLB.com last month during a rookie career development program run by the players’ union and Major League Baseball. “I’m working really hard. Whenever they think I’m ready, I’m going to go out there and help the team win any way I can.”