Cubs

Cubs believe Albert Almora’s time is coming after Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber’s fast-track development

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Cubs believe Albert Almora’s time is coming after Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber’s fast-track development

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.   

[RELATED - Cubs invite Albert Almora and Duane Underwood to big-league camp]

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.” 

[MORE - Jake Arrieta plans to come back strong after Cy Young year]

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.”

Ben Zobrist earned his first career ejection thanks to one hell of a zinger

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AP

Ben Zobrist earned his first career ejection thanks to one hell of a zinger

Two days after David Bote turned in the best moment of the Cubs' season, Ben Zobrist delivered the best line of the Cubs' season.

As the top of the ninth inning was getting underway, the 37-year-old mild-mannered veteran was seen talking with home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi.

As Jorge De La Rosa finished his warm-up pitches and the inning was about to start, suddenly Zobrist and Cuzzi got animated and the next thing anybody knew, Zobrist was slapped with his first-ever ejection.

"When you have good, quality at-bats as a hitter and you feel like it's kinda taken away from you, you want some sort of an answer," Zobrist said. "Or you want to be assured that they're gonna go back and make an adjustment and that's what I asked for.

"It was met with, basically, he didn't want to talk about that. He didn't want me to tell him that. I just basically said, 'Well that's why we want an electronic strike zone.'"

MIC. DROP.

This came after a passionate discussion between the two men in the bottom of the sixth inning when Zobrist was called out on strikes on a full count pitch he thought was clearly off the plate. On that play, Joe Maddon came out to intercede and was ejected, but Zobrist walked back to the dugout to collect himself and remained in the game.

So before his next at-bat, Zobrist wanted to say his piece. A calm discussion transformed into something more and while Zobrist didn't apologize for what he said, he was willing to admit his pride played a factor.

"It is what it is," he said. "I'm not gonna lie. When you're dealing with that and you're trying to have good, quality at-bats and you feel like it gets taken away from you, sometimes your pride gets in your way and you say things that are going to upset them. Obviously that upset him and he tossed me."

Zobrist's strikeout wasn't an altogether huge moment in the game, but the pitch — a breaking ball off from Jhoulys Chacin that started off the plate and remained off the plate — should've been Ball 4 and would've given the Cubs runners at first and second with nobody out for Jason Heyward. Sure, it was a 7-0 ballgame, but with the wind blowing out and the Cubs had 12 outs left, crazier things have happened (which Bote just proved).

The Cubs never went on to record another hit, but they didn't blame Cuzzi for that.

"Whenever Zo argues, as a manager, you better get your butt out there," Maddon said. "He's rare to be that way and eventually to get ejected, that's unfortunate. But regardless, there was a couple bad calls, but we gotta do a better job offensively. My god."

Zobrist said he's been more animated and riled up at other points in his career compared to Tuesday afternoon, but obviously that zinger was enough to get the job done to notch his first-ever ejection.

Almost a year ago to the day, Zobrist was very nearly tossed in a game against the Reds, but Maddon once again got in the middle.

This is the latest chapter in what has become a surprising trend of the Cubs vs. umpire debacle. 

For the third straight homestand, the Cubs have had an issue with the umpiring crew — from Javy Baez getting tossed against the Cardinals last month to Anthony Rizzo getting heated with Angel Hernandez two weekends ago to Maddon getting the boot a few days ago against the Nationals.

Only Rizzo's was related to balls and strikes, but between him and Zobrist — two guys who rarely argue — getting heated in the span of 9 days, it begs the question: Does Major League Baseball need an electronic strike zone?

"I'm just gonna leave it at that," Zobrist said. "I think that discussion will happen eventually. But I'm just gonna leave right now at the fact that I said that today. That's it."

Theo Epstein’s perspective on David Bote’s historic moment

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein’s perspective on David Bote’s historic moment

As a team, the Cubs do well with letting go of bad losses quickly and celebrating the good wins just as quickly, and then moving on. Except after David Bote’s two-out, two-strike grand slam to win Sunday night’s game against the Nationals, the team is still basking in the afterglow. Joe Maddon held his third annual “Try Not to Suck” celebrity golf outing at the Bryn Mawr Country Club in Lincolnwood on Monday, and like the rest of Chicago, Bote’s miraculous handiwork dominated the conversation. 

“Yesterday, the group at the golf tournament were effervescent just based on David's home run.” Maddon said prior to Tuesday’s game. “That's all they could talk about." And at the top of the Cubs organization, Vice President Theo Epstein offered perspective on what has made Bote successful beyond just Sunday night. “He's got a big barrel,” Epstein said. “It just comes off hot more often and he's just a combination of the way his hands and wrists work in his swing and the swing plane that he's got now, it's a huge barrel.”

 Bote leads the majors in average exit velocity, and he has always hit the ball hard. Adjustments to his swing leading in to the 2017 season helped to get the ball in the air more, so displays of power like his dead center homer two days ago are more common. “He was hitting the ball down into the ground. Getting the swing on a little bit better plane, he's been able to pull that off while continuing to barrel up balls, so you're seeing balls just explode all over the park,” Epstein said. “He has opposite field power, he's routinely hitting the ball over the right fielder's head. You don't see guys hit the ball in the middle of the field as far as he did. And obviously when he pulls the ball, good things happen, too.” After Sunday’s win, Bote said that after being beaten by low sinkers on Saturday, he was keyed in to Nationals closer Ryan Madson’s four seam fastball. That slight adjustment helped him to create the moment that won the game. 

And on the whole, Bote has offered the kind of depth that has helped the Cubs to be a perennial playoff contender for several years in a row. Not many teams can offer that. “Sometimes we have two starting caliber players on the bench, sometimes we've had one, sometimes we've had three,” Epstein said. “The more you have the better because it just makes you more dangerous when you're writing off the lineup any given day.” Bote’s future is a bit in question as Kris Bryant continues to prepare for his return to the lineup, but as he showed, Bote is fully capable of producing off of the bench or when called upon in the bottom of the 9th. “As you saw with Bote the other day,” Epstein said, “pinch-hitting, to be able to create that matchup in that spot, I don't think a lot of teams would have that ability.”