Can Albert Almora Jr. fill the Dexter Fowler-sized hole atop the Cubs lineup?
Almora and Co. are set for a quick two-game series in Cleveland beginning Tuesday night, the first time the Cubs have stepped foot on Progressive Field after that epic Game 7 that ended a 108-year championship drought.
Fowler led off that game with a home run off Corey Kluber and shortly after, signed with the St. Louis Cardianls, leaving the Cubs scratching their heads for a consistent leadoff hitter since.
Kyle Schwarber was touted as "the guy" to begin 2017, but he struggled mightily, prompting an eventual trip back down to the minors that summer. Ian Happ was supposed to be "the guy" for 2018, but he's gone through similar issues and is currently reduced to a part-time role as he works on the holes in his swing with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.
In between, we've seen "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" Anthony Rizzo fill the role for a few games, along with the likes of Jon Jay and Ben Zobrist, among others.
Right now, at least, the answer certainly appears to be the guy who scored the game-winning run in that Game 7.
Almora has drawn the last four starts at leadoff, during which the Cubs won three of those games against two hopeful playoff contenders (St. Louis, Colorado). He's collected a hit in each game — 8 in total — and scored 6 runs.
Oh yeah, and Almora made so many highlight-reel catches in center field over the weekend that he might've just secured the Gold Glove before May's even hit:
Albert Almora is getting really really good at his Willie Mays impersonation. pic.twitter.com/BOa34AhTYq— Cubs Talk (@NBCSCubs) April 22, 2018
Almora is hitting .378 with a .911 OPS in eight starts as the Cubs' leadoff hitter this season, scoring eight runs and even drawing a few walks (3 in 40 plate appearances).
Of course, it is a small sample size still — he entered Sunday's game hitting .419 as a leadoff hitter before going 1-for-6 in the finale in Colorado, meaning one bad game would drastically change those numbers.
But Almora is also doing this against right-handed pitching recently — with three of these last four starts coming against righties (all Cubs wins) — so the past week is yet another example that the Cubs' 24-year-old centerfielder is flashing serious signs of development.
As good as he's been recently, Almora still probably isn't the answer at leadoff long-term for the Cubs.
He's seeing just 3.32 pitches per plate appearance, ranking 346th out of 355 MLB hitters in 2018. That's a far cry from Fowler's 2016 season, when he ranked 4th in baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance, coming in just behind Mike Trout and just ahead of Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt.
When any guy the Cubs throw out as the leadoff hitter is on a hot streak, the offense looks to be firing on all cylinders. But what made Fowler so great atop the order was his ability to take walks regardless of what kind of stretch he was on as a hitter.
Fowler drew a walk in 14.3 percent of his plate appearances in 2016 and boasts a 12.7 career rate. Almora is drawing a free pass 7.5 percent of his times up in 2018, and that's a jump from his 5.7 percent career rate.
"Dexter is an outstanding leadoff hitter," Joe Maddon said when Fowler and the Cardinals visited Wrigley Field last week. "He goes through his moments, too, when he gets hot or cold. But he knew how to do it because even when he wasn't hitting, Dexter was really good at accepting his walks.
"On top of that, he's got this effervescent personality that your team can feedoff of and he was really good about not wearing it on his sleeve when he wasn't going well. On-base percentage was normally floating around that 35 percent mark or better, even when he wasn't hitting well.
"It was nice to have him here to do that. Beyond that, he's such a wonderful teammate and in the clubhouse, he's outstanding. We have not had that stability since he's gone, but we'll figure it out."
The Cubs have scored the most regular-season runs in the National League since that last time Fowler was atop the lineup, but in that span, Cubs leadoff hitters are hitting just .247 with a .326 on-base percentage and .741 OPS.
By comparison, Fowler hit .276 with a .393 on-base percentage and .840 OPS in 2016.
Imagine the potential for this current lineup and for "Bryzzo" in RBI opportunities if the leadoff hitter was getting on base anywhere near the rate of 2016 Fowler.
Almora has just a .335 career on-base percentage and 28 walks in 493 plate appearances, including a .301 career OBP against right-handed pitchers. And that's with this recent hot stretch and a great couple months to end 2017 as the Cubs deployed him in the best situations for him to succeed.
If Almora plays every day, he will probably get overexposed at some point.
So if not Almora, then who? Happ isn't the answer at the moment given his struggles and extreme strikeout rate (43.1 percent).
Ben Zobrist would be perfect and Maddon admitted he would've led off over Almora in the finale against the Cardinals last Thursday if the veteran utility man was not dealing with a back ailment that later landed him on the DL.
Tommy La Stella is another good fit, but where would he play every day? Kyle Schwarber looks like Kyle Schwarber The Hitter again, but after the experiment as a leadoff hitter last season bombed, would anybody really want to risk a setback by inserting him in the spot again?
Jason Heyward left Colorado with a .352 on-base percentage and even though it may come at a complete shock to most Cubs fans, he could be an option to lead off if he shows consistency over a larger sample size. Javy Baez is the only Cubs hitter hotter than Almora, but even though he put together a stretch worthy of a weekly NL honor, he hasn't walked in almost two weeks and has just two unintentional free passes in the first month of the season.
So for now, it's Almora's show and deservedly so.
But chances are, he's not the guy that's going to bring long-term stability to the Cubs' leadoff position on an everyday basis.