The Cubs chose Albert Almora Jr. in the middle of a 101-loss season, making him the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein regime. The Cubs used that sixth overall pick in 2012 on a teenager they saw with a high floor, someone who represented Team USA and grew up in South Florida playing year-round against elite competition.
Flash-forward and the Cubs are now a 103-win team, validating their belief in Almora again when they unveiled their 25-man roster for this National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants.
“He’s definitely not going to be afraid,” manager Joe Maddon said before Friday night’s Game 1 at Wrigley Field. “He’s definitely going to relish the moment. He’s looking for that moment. He’s not going to run away from it.
“He’s young and he hasn’t been here very long. But when you talk to this fellow – you look him in the eye – there is no hesitation on his part. All of us felt very comfortable about putting him there.”
The Cubs believe Almora has the potential to someday become a Gold Glove outfielder. This is the next step in a year where he turned 22, made his big-league debut, got married, became a father and worried about his own father’s battle with prostate cancer.
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Almora split this season between Triple-A Iowa and The Show, hitting .277 with a .763 OPS in 47 games for the Cubs, but this move revolves around run prevention in October. Almora’s emergence sidelined Matt Szczur – who is five years older and has played in 140 more big-league games – for at least this playoff round. Szczur – a solid role player and another right-handed hitter – batted .259 with a .712 OPS in 200 plate appearances this season.
“We just think that Albert’s a really good defender,” Maddon said. “He’s also been swinging the bat well lately. You can’t take that away from Albert, regardless of age, whatever, or how long one guy’s been here during the year or not.
“We just thought moving it forward – the kind of talent we’re going to need or skill set we’re going to need at the end of the game – Albert fit in pretty well.”
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The Cubs indulged Tommy La Stella’s refusal to report to the minors because he has a specific skill, and he made this roster as a left-handed contact hitter off the bench. X-factor outfielder Jorge Soler (tightness on his right side) has been cleared for the playoffs. Two niche relievers with postseason experience (Trevor Cahill and Joe Smith) and a 15-game winner (Jason Hammel) didn’t get a spot on an 11-man pitching staff.
“They’re not easy (decisions), but it also speaks to depth,” Maddon said. “The driving thought was whether you wanted one more pitcher or one more position player, so we just chose to go with one more position player. It’s a five-game series: Play, play, day off, play, play, day off, so your pitchers have a chance to regroup in those moments.”