Cubs

Why Cubs chose Albert Almora Jr. for playoff roster

Why Cubs chose Albert Almora Jr. for playoff roster

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.

[RELATED - Cubs set 25-man roster for NLDS against Giants]       

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.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]   

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.”

19 for 19: Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?

19 for 19: Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Are the Cubs the best team in the NL Central?

The entire National League is much improved, with superstars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper staying in the league despite signing with new teams and other really good players moving over from the American League - Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano, Josh Donaldson, etc.

The NL Central is also quite a bit better, with the Reds making big moves to jump into potential contention and join the other four teams in the division that all finished over .500 a year ago.

The Pirates didn't have a busy offseason (do they ever?), but the Cardinals added Paul Goldschmidt (then locked him up long-term) and Andrew Miller while the Brewers filled a major hole by adding Yasmani Grandal and bringing back Mike Moustakas and now they might add Craig Kimbrel, too.

You already know the story about the Cubs' offseason, where their biggest signings were Brad Brach and Daniel Descalso. Coupled with a return to health from some big names (Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, eventually maybe Brandon Morrow), is that enough to vault the Cubs to the top of the division once again?

It's very possible. The Cubs won 95 games last year despite a whole bunch going wrong - from injuries to a grueling schedule to steps back from key young players like Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber.

Right now, I like the Cubs' chances at outlasting the rest of the division because of their depth. The bullpen is the only hole on the roster, and there's no guarantee it will even be a sore spot for the team this year given how volatile relievers are from year to year. 

They also have the star power with three of the best all-around players in the division (Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez) and a supporting cast that certainly has the potential to be excellent (Contreras, Schwarber, Descalso, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, David Bote). 

Then there's the starting rotation. No team in the NL can boast the type of track record the Cubs have 1-through-5. However, track record is not always an indicator of future performance and the Cubs rotation is aging - Jon Lester and Cole Hamels are 35 and only Kyle Hendricks (29) is under 30. 

Also, depth can be erased in a hurry with a few poorly-timed injuries, as the 2018 Cubs proved. And the current bullpen has obviously seen better days.

The Cubs have a chip on their shoulder for 2019 - they're on a mission and feel like they have something to prove. 

Between that sense of urgency, their talent, experience and depth, give me the Cubs to win the NL Central this year, though the Cardinals and Brewers are close behind and the Pirates and Reds might both finish with winning records.

- By Tony Andracki

In a word? Nope! 

I don't know how anyone can definitively say, today on March 25, that the Cubs are the class of the NL Central. A recap of their last 8 months will show that:

1. They did not, actually, win the NL Central last year
2. Their only offseason addition was Daniel Descalso

There's plenty of reasons to believe in the Cubs. They won 95 games without Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, or Brandon Morrow. They have rotational depth that most teams can't match. Their everyday lineup will almost always feature two bonafide MVP candidates. Still, this is a team that couldn't hold off the Brewers after going into September with a 5-game lead. This is also a team that could not win either game of a do-or-die, 2-game home series. 

As it stands now, another NL Central team matches up well against the Cubs in each facet of the game. The Cardinals and Pirates have equally talented rotations, the Reds offense will hang, and the Brewers bullpen still looks pretty damn good. 

By no means is it a stretch to expect the Cubs to be better than what the Projection-System-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named suggested.  A 3rd place, 80-82 season would be nothing short of a disaster. People would lose their jobs. Still, there was a clearly a complacency issue last season, and it sounds like the Cubs and their fans were shocked by last year's outcome in part because they assumed that the Cubs were the class of the NL Central and were going to fall backwards into the NLCS. Defaulting to that again seems ... curious? A 95-win team doesn't overhaul day-to-day operations if they think the status quo was working. 

Going into 2019, the Cubs aren't the class of the NL Central. The good news is that it doesn't really feel like there *is* a team that could be considered that, anyways. 

- By Cam Ellis 

 

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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19 for '19: What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?

19 for '19: What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: What can the Cubs expect from Yu Darvish?

Yu Darvish's inaugural season in Chicago obviously didn't go well. But despite a minor blister issue, Year 2 seems to be off to a much better start.

Darvish has been different this spring - from his physical shape (he's added more muscle) to his health to his confidence and comfortability.

He said he now feels like part of the family in the clubhouse and has been holding court with reporters without a translator, even cracking jokes on the regular. He was confident enough in his English skills last year to interact with teammates and understand the media questions he was asked without a translation, but he still responded in Japanese, which created some miscommunication at times.

The blister issue Darvish had a few days ago caused Cubdom to hold their breath momentarily, but it doesn't appear to be anything serious and he may not even miss a start because of it. The forearm bone bruise is completely gone and Darvish had a procedure to clean up his elbow right before the offseason started, so he should enter 2019 as close to 100 percent as somebody with a blister on their pitching hand can be.

He also doesn't have to answer any questions about his performance in the World Series or try to determine if he was tipping pitches - two issues he had to discuss last spring coming off a couple of nightmare outings in the 2017 Fall Classic.

On top of that, there's something to an increase in comfortability in Year 2 of a megadeal, which Jon Lester has talked about in detail the last few seasons. Lester admitted he was pressing in his first year with the Cubs, trying to live up to his big contract and the lofty expectations that came with it. But he also said he felt a lot more comfortable in the second year of his deal, especially during a season in which the Cubs had World Series expectations.

Maybe Darvish follows that same path. He doesn't have the same pressure or burden he had a year ago and the Cubs don't need him to be their ace - they already have a rotation filled with proven veterans.

Remember, this is still the same pitcher who has whiffed 11 batters per 9 innings over his 872.1-inning big-league career. Prior to 2018, Darvish had never posted an ERA over 3.86 or WHIP over 1.28 in a season (last year he was at 4.95 and 1.43, respectively).

Nobody can guarantee health for a full season, but if Darvish is able to throw even 120-150 quality innings, that would be a huge boon for the Cubs in 2019.

- Tony Andracki 

It feels like Darvish's decline has become a bit overstated at this point. He was bad last year, but also clearly hurt and only has a 40-inning sample size. He had gotten to at least 100 innings in each of his prior five seasons and was averaging 166 IPs per season until 2018. 

If he's healthy, there's no reason not to expect the Darvish that's a 4-time All Star and Cy Young runner-up. What looks like a dip in production during the 2017 season -- when he was traded from Texas to the Dodgers -- is actually somewhat misleading - Darvish's K-rate, BB-rate, and velocity all returned to career norms when he joined the Dodgers. Pitching in Texas can be a disaster, and all of Darvish's park-adjusted numbers suggest that the Globe Life Park wasn't doing him any favors. No one's confusing Wrigley for say, Safeco (or T-Mobile I guess), but it beats the launching pad in Dallas. 

Much of Darvish's value stems from the fact that he gives the Cubs' rotation something they don't otherwise have: a high-volume strikeout guy. No other starter comes close to piling up strikeouts the way that Darvish can - his K/9 rate is almost three batters more than any other starter on staff. 

A bounce back season from Darvish and he's probably in the conversation to be a hypothetical playoff Game 1 starter. Leaving Spring Training games is always a little bit concerning, but given Darvish's injury history, it could have been much worse. Overall, there are a lot of signs pointing towards a really good 2019 for Darvish, and the Cubs could use all the good pitching news they can get. 

- By Cam Ellis

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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