Cubs

The Cubs have no intentions of finding more playing time for Albert Almora Jr.

The Cubs have no intentions of finding more playing time for Albert Almora Jr.

Why doesn't Albert Almora Jr. play more?

It's a common refrain from Cubs fans lately, especially with the 23-year-old outfielder in a middle of a hot stretch that saw him collect eight RBI in three at-bats this week.

Almora came in as a reserve in all three games against the New York Mets earlier in the homestand and went 4-for-5 with a double, a triple, a homer, eight RBI and three runs. 

Joe Maddon wrote Almora's name in Saturday's lineup against the St. Louis Cardinals, just his fourth start out of 15 games in September. He immediately made an impact, driving home the Cubs' first run in the fourth inning and igniting a two-run rally. He came through again in the fifth with a two-out RBI double and doubled again in the seventh as the Cubs cruised to a 4-1 victory.

The hot stretch helped push his overall season slash line to .299/.341/.442 (.784 OPS) in his first full year in the big leagues. Those numbers represent a bit of a jump from his minor-league line (.290/.322/.416 — .738 OPS).

Maddon has seen Almora's development in terms of using the whole field, being selectively aggressive and not missing his pitch. Almora swung at the first pitch each time up Saturday and had two hits to show for it.

"That was a really good matchup for Albert today and that's why we played him," Maddon said after the game.

So could Almora see more playing time over guys like Ian Happ, Jon Jay or Kyle Schwarber given his recent tear?

"Well, maybe he's doing so well because we're putting him in the right spots," Maddon explained. "There's always that thing, too. Happ had another big hit today; Happ's done really well. Jon Jay continues to do a lot of great things. Schwarber has gotta play also.

"Nice problem, trying to figure out the lineup every day. We'll try to make our best guesses on a daily basis and keep them all looking good and keeping them all fresh hopefully for the remainder of the season into the postseason. I love what he's doing."

All the talk about matchups is exactly why Almora isn't getting more playing time. Saturday marked the 10th straight right-handed starting pitcher the Cubs faced, dating back to Sep. 5 against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Almora isn't strictly a platoon player, but there is a pretty wide gap in his splits — .346 average, .919 OPS vs. southpaws and only a .270 AVG and .700 OPS vs. righties in 2017. And that's including the last week, where many of Almora's big hits have come against right-handers.

Saturday's start against the right-handed Michael Wacha came by virtue of Wacha's splits — the Cardinals right-hander is better vs. lefties (.645 OPS against) than righties (.754 OPS against).

"My confidence is always at an all-time high," Almora said. "It has to be in this game because this is a game of failure. Even on days you fail, I try to take the positive out of things. I try to learn every single at-bat.

"Joe has his reasons and I'm not complaining. I'm putting my head down and I'm going to work. Whenever I get a chance, just try to do my job."

Almora obviously would like to play more (he's on pace for just over 300 at-bats over the course of a full year in the big leagues), but his mentality is team first.

"Absolutely. I've always said, it's not about me, it's about the Chciago Cubs," Almora said. "And obviously we trust Joe to do whatever he's gotta do to put the best nine out there every day to win games. When I'm just given my opportunity, I'm just trying to go out there and help the team win.

"It's not in my control. I could go to bed killing myself thinking about what's going on, but nah, man, it's not about me. It's about the team winning games and we're doing it right now. We just gotta keep it going."

Almora also hasn't jumped off the page defensively the way many thought he would. In 584 innings in center this season, he's at -1 Defensive Runs Saved, according to FanGraphs, which is slightly below average. By comparison, Ian Happ has accrued +2 DRS in 330.1 innings in center and Jon Jay is at -4 in 302.1 innings. By Baseball Reference's metric, Almora has 0.0 defensive WAR this season, meaning he's been exactly average. 

Defensive metrics aren't end-all, be-all and there's still no truly perfect way to measure a player's value on defense, but the peripheral numbers don't point to a huge impact from Almora defensively.

The Cubs entered the 2017 season with a plan on platooning Jay and Almora in center field, with the occasional game for Jason Heyward there, moving over from right. But Maddon admitted Happ's emergence has changed things quite a bit and Almora's been the one who has seen more of a negative impact in playing time.

The Cubs are in the midst of a pennant race and Maddon has already said it's time for performance, not development, so the guys that are having success — like Tommy La Stella, for example — will see more playing time down the stretch.

That being said, the Cubs don't plan on carving out more playing time for Almora than he's had to this point. Happ and Jay will still see time in center field and the Cubs will still pick spots and play matchups to maximize Almora's talents.

"His confidence level's up right now," Maddon said. "He's been doing a great job. ... We've been able to match him up even more and right now, his success is very high. So when you look at it, I'm certain from his perspective, as a young player, he'd like to play more.

"But his time's coming to play more. What he's doing right now is really obviously benefitting himself. He's naking a nice name or mark for himself."

Pete Ricketts and Omaha pastor reconcile, audio of contentious meeting surfaces

Pete Ricketts and Omaha pastor reconcile, audio of contentious meeting surfaces

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Omaha pastor Jarrod Parker met Wednesday, after a disagreement earlier in the week sparked public conversation about the relationship between the local government and the black community.

“We embraced, and we shook hands,” Parker, the pastor of St. Mark Baptist Church in Omaha, said in a live video on Facebook. “We met and vowed to work together in a spirit of peace and reconciliation.”

It was Parker’s second video this week about Ricketts, who is also part of the Cubs family ownership, but who stepped down from the Board of Directors when he took office. On Monday, after a meeting with local government officials and black community members, Parker posted an impassioned video in which he said Ricketts called black leaders “you people.”

In a statement, Ricketts said, “I chose my words poorly, and apologized when it became apparent that I had caused offense.”

Audio reportedly of a portion of Monday's meeting surfaced and circulated online Wednesday. NBC Sports Chicago obtained a copy of that audio.

After a break in the audio, Ricketts can be heard saying, “Where the hell were all you guys when I was trying to—”

Another man cuts him off saying, “Excuse me, what did you just say?”

Several other voices chime in, drowning each other out.

Parker addressed the audio, and the criticism he's received since it surfaced, in his Facebook video.

Posted by St Mark Baptist Church on Wednesday, June 3, 2020

“There’s sound that is kind of washing out what was being said after ‘you guys.’  Let me say this, as a pastor, as a man, … I was sitting right next to him. I stand by what I said, and the governor apologized for it. I thanked him as a man for doing that.”

On Tuesday Morning, Ricketts said on a local radio station, 96.7 The Boss, that he planned to speak with Parker.

“I’m absolutely open,” Ricketts said. “I think what we want to do is let everybody’s emotions kind of cool down here a little bit, but I will follow up with the pastor and apologize to him directly and certainly I apologized to all the folks in the room yesterday as well, while we were still there.”

Parker said he’s uninterested in the argument over the meeting audio.

“I hope that this is a message that as much as we disagree and as much as we can hurt each other and be intensive,” Parker said, “we have to come back to the table. Black people, white people, young people, old people, Christian people, non-Christian, people of all faiths, all colors … we’ve got to come back together now.”

How MLB’s ‘wonderful opportunity’ might turn into a ‘catastrophic result’

How MLB’s ‘wonderful opportunity’ might turn into a ‘catastrophic result’

When Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts or any other baseball owner claims publicly they’d be better off financially by not playing a 2020 season at all rather than accept some of the players’ terms, don’t fall for it.

That’s because whatever the short-term hit — and for teams such as the Cubs it might well be substantial — the long-term damage to the sport from skipping a season over financial negotiations during a global pandemic could be “catastrophic,” according to at least one sports economist.

In fact, baseball might face more dire consequences in recouping fan interest and financial losses than its major-league sports counterparts for several reasons.

Baseball, like many industries, faces a potentially weak economy in general for the next couple of years because the impact of the COVID-19 crisis as it tries to rebound after a year of losses, regardless, noted sports economist Andrew Zimbalist said.

And sports could be further impacted by coronavirus fallout related to how many fans are allowed to gather in stadiums even by next year, and how many will be willing to do so.

But even beyond that, baseball could face a unique challenge compared to the other sports, Zimbalist said, if a season isn’t played because decades-long animus between owners and players cause these negotiations to break down.

“Especially during a time when most of America is suffering and baseball players have an average salary of almost $5 million, and owners of course are sitting on assets that are generally worth $1 billion and more, people don’t want to hear about squabbles between those two groups,” said Zimbalist, the longtime economics professor at Smith College who has published more than a dozen books on the economics of baseball and other sports.

Look no further than what happened after the 1994-95 strike and lockout, he said, when the full-season attendance equivalent in the 1995 return season represented more than a 20 percent decline from 1993.

“I would expect a similar impact now but the impact compounded for two reasons,” he said. “The economic situation [at large] is not as auspicious, and, two, all of this is happening during a pandemic when really everybody is suffering. It’s harder to understand or accept the owners and the players battling this out during a period of generalized depression and anxiety.”

Common sense? Sure. Most of us recognize the risk owners and players take anytime the millionaire-vs.-billionaire fight is waged publicly, especially at a time of such health, economic and social gravity, including the protests and unrest since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day.

RELATED: Cubs' Jason Heyward on racial injustice: 'It feels like a broken record'

But if baseball expects to rebound from a season missed because of money matters following a decade of record revenues and enormous gains in franchise values, then it might want to consider long and hard what the means for doing that will be.

Ricketts told ESPN on Tuesday that “the scale of losses across the league is biblical.”

Nobody disputes teams are dealing with almost zero revenue during the pandemic shutdown or the likelihood of a season of any length resulting in steep losses, especially without fans allowed in stadiums. The Cubs have been hit especially hard by the timing of the shutdown because it coincides with costs associated with the launch of their new TV network.

Ricketts told ESPN the teams and league don’t have “a pile” of cash from recent seasons of record industry revenues, because, he said, teams put that money back into their teams, including payrolls.

“No one expects to have to draw down on the reserves from the past,” Ricketts said. "Every team has to figure out a way to plug the hole.”

That would seem to make an offer by the union to defer a percentage of salaries a viable solution in negotiations. But Zimbalist said that while some teams might have a cash-flow problem, he doesn’t believe the league or teams generally face that issue — rendering deferrals with interest of “minimal value.”

Whatever it takes to close the gap in negotiations, that ticking baseball is hearing could start sounding a lot more like a detonation device than a clock before long.

If they cancel the season and try to dig out later, there’s no Cal Ripken Jr. consecutive-games streak just waiting to resume and provide a made-for-TV, record-setting moment.

Not only are there no Sammy Sosas and Mark McGwires on the visible horizon, but even that boost of interest to the game in 1998 turned a few years later into one if its biggest scandals.

And this, perhaps most of all: The average baseball fan is a white guy in his 50s — the game’s core consumer is aging out fast with the generations behind him too often showing indifference to an increasingly slow-paced game with decreasing action and more strikeouts than hits.

“A greater sensitivity of fan response in part because of shifting culture across the generations? I think that’s true,” said Zimbalist, who includes in that the increasing choices and popularity of video games.

“Baseball’s status as a national pastime is certainly being challenged,” he said. “Those elements will certainly complicate baseball’s effort to rejuvenate their fan base if they don’t come back.

“The other side of the coin,” he added, “is if they do come back and play baseball this summer, when people are basically starving for sports, there’s potentially an opportunity to extend its allure to more and more people and generate a level of passion and avidity that baseball hasn’t seen in a while.

"There’s a wonderful opportunity awaiting them if they can get their act together, and there’s an almost catastrophic result if they can’t. … I think both sides are fully aware of that.”

RELATED: Major League Baseball swinging and missing on big opportunity

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.