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."

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

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USA TODAY

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

The NL Central keeps getting better this offseason.

According to multiple reports, the Reds have traded for pitcher Sonny Gray from the Yankees.

The Reds have been active this offseason and adding a former all-star to their rotation would be another big step towards turning the Reds into contenders in what is shaping up to be a very tough NL Central in 2019. They already added Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in a blockbuster deal with the Dodgers.

Gray is 29 and has a career ERA of 3.66, but isn't coming off a good year. With the Yankees he had a 4.90 ERA, the second-highest of his career, and didn't pitch in the postseason. The last time Gray had a bad year, he bounced back. Gray had a 5.69 ERA in 2016, the year after his breakout all-star campaign in 2015, but was solid in 2017 with the A's and Yankees.

Coming off a 95-loss season, the Reds had a long way to go, but look to be improved on paper with those additions.

Elsewhere in the division, the Cardinals already added Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller and the defending division champion Brewers added marquee free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal.

Meanwhile, it has been mostly crickets for the Cubs this offseason. Owner Tom Ricketts recently defended the team's financial situation, which has led to the team appearing to be less aggressive this winter.

It looks like the Cubs will face increased competition in the division this season. Will that force the team's hand to be more aggressive before spring training?

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Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Ask any Cubs player about 2019 and it's hard not to notice the urgency in their voice. 

After just about the least-enjoyable summer that 95 wins and a playoff appearance can buy, the normal winter platitudes that they tend to reel off have taken on additional weight. Rosters with as much potential as the Cubs don't come around often, and most of those players aren't going to get any cheaper down the road. Things can change quickly in baseball. 

Perhaps no one on the Cubs knows this quite like Cole Hamels, a World Series champion who has been a part of multiple different playoff-caliber rosters. Hamels revived his career after a disappointing tenure in Texas ended with a late-July trade, posting a 2.36 ERA over 76 innings on the North Side. The lefty went 4-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his first five games here (all of which they won), a far cry from the dreadful performances he was putting up with the Rangers. Sometimes a change of scenery is needed, but getting healthy always helps too. 

"I had a really tough time with the oblique injury I had two years ago and trying to get my mechanics back on track," Hamels said. "I just don’t think I was able to identify and correct what was going on. I was fighting it the whole season, until I kind of looked at a little bit deeper film and then really just made some more drastic changes, and went with it."

His oblique injury in 2017 derailed Hamels for the better part of a calendar year. The strain originally landed him on the 15-day DL, but he actually ended up missing eight weeks of games. In the 19 starts after, Hamels posted a 4.42 FIP with a 1.22 WHIP, walking over three batters per nine innings. He admitted to pitching through lingering discomfort at times, instead choosing to try and grit through a game - even if that meant ignoring how it would derail his healing process. As a result, the start of 2018 didn't treat him much better. It wasn't until a longer-than-usual film study with the Cubs that Hamels found his fix. 

"Basically, I was coming out of my whole front side," he added. "My hips - you know I was really landing open. I don’t do that - I’m a closed-off guy that really kind of hides the ball. It also maintains my distance down the mound and allows me to have a little bit more velocity. So I think that was really the big change and what I’ve been focusing on this offseason." 

Looking at the numbers, the adjustment is clear as day:

Adding three miles an hour to your fastball, midseason, is pretty significant. The reinvention of his fastball was one of the driving forces behind his turnaround last season, and there's no reason to believe Hamels -- now with a full offseason of healthy workouts under his belt -- can't be that type of pitcher for an entire season. If he can, the Lester-Hamels-Darvish rotation the Cubs dreamed of might be one step closer to fruition. 

As it stands now, however, there are *plenty* of questions about the Cubs' rotation. Their youngest starter is 29. Lester had his worst season in almost a decade and the year-by-year trends don't look great. Health AND regression have dogged Yu Darvish. Jose Quintana's been fine, but is a 4.05 FIP and 1.25 WHIP in 258 innings worth losing Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease?

"I think we all know how to get ready for a game and what’s expected out of us," Hamels said. "We know how to get good results and if we have a bad game we have guys that will pick of the pieces the next day and that’s comforting. I don’t think there are going to be too many bad stretches because we have guys that are going to be able to take care of business and stop streaks and we’re going to see some pretty fun winning streaks because of what we’re going to be doing as a pitching staff." 

Being an ace certainly wouldn't hurt, but if Hamels wants to live up to the $20 million option the Cubs picked up, he'll need to fill a larger void as one of the team's leaders. ("I think in general, MLB is doing pretty well for themselves," he replied when asked if the decision financially hamstrings the Cubs. "So I don’t necessarily buy it as much, but I understand people have to work within the certain system that they set.") Though this is still a tightly-knit clubhouse, many players and coaches admitted that there needs to be a new approach to leadership in 2019. Hamels, a World Series MVP and four-time All Star, fits the bill. It can be uncomfortable for players of even his pedigree to come into a new team and immediately be a leader, and Hamels knows how far a full spring around the same group of guys will go towards fixing that. 

"I’m 35, I’ve been in this game a long time, so I think that’s where I need to be. That’s sort of the role that’s directed towards you if you’ve played the game long enough. That’s kind of where you fit. I understand that, I’ve had a couple years to really do what I need to do in order to be that leader, and I guess now that means be a little more vocal instead of just letting the play out on the field be the leader."