Cubs

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Cubs Talk Podcast: 1-on-1 with Kyle Hendricks

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: 1-on-1 with Kyle Hendricks

Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki discuss the impact a full season of Cole Hamels could have on the rotation and the team. And David Kaplan goes 1-on-1 with Kyle Hendricks. Find out which teammate Hendricks says most enjoys striking out in Spring Training.

00:35 - Tony and Kelly break down the potential impact that Cole Hamels can have on the 2019 club. They discuss Hamels' value as a teammate and a leader, his approach to baseball every day, and what the Cubs expect from him every fifth day.

16:56 - Kap goes 1-on-1 with Kyle Hendricks during a walk around a practice diamond at the Cubs facilities in Mesa. Hendricks discusses his excitement for 2019, how he approaches the buildup to the regular season, and how much fun he has facing teammates during spring training.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs still wide open with leadoff spot in 2019: 'If somebody wants to take it, take it'

Cubs still wide open with leadoff spot in 2019: 'If somebody wants to take it, take it'

MESA, Ariz. — Rickey Henderson isn't coming through that door for the Cubs, no matter how much Joe Maddon would like it.

Dexter Fowler isn't, either.

Almost three years to the day since Fowler surprised everybody by walking onto the backfield at Cubs camp in Arizona, the Cubs are still searching for his replacement — a "you go, we go" presence atop the order. 

The Cubs won't have just one guy in that spot in 2019, as Maddon will continue to mix and match with options atop the order. 

It will again to come down to matchups, as Maddon pointed to how Ben Zobrist is a great fit against right-handed pitchers while Albert Almora Jr. is a good bet as the leadoff hitter against lefties. It's also about a need to jumpstart the offense at times, hence why "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" Anthony Rizzo has been put into that spot at various points over the last couple years.

"It's always wonderful to pen one name in there," Maddon said. "Absolutely. I'll never deny that. When Dexter was around, that was outstanding — just put it in there and work from there. But when you don't have it, you try to mix and match it. 

"On-base percentage is huge. Seeing pitches is huge. But I also like a guy that knows how to drive in a run later in the game because here comes 8-9-1, the latter part of a National League game — hitting a pitcher 8th or 9th — it can bleed into an RBI situation.

"It's one of those things where I'd like to have it all. But I say primarily looking for somebody that gets on base, that's a little bit more patient. ... We have all these different candidates. It's gonna look that way again. People tend to get confused — they see different names and think it's not effective, but it was rather effective last year."

Maddon is right.

Even with that second-half fade from the overall offense, Cubs leadoff hitters still combined to lead the National League in average, on-base percentage and wRC (weighted runs created) and finished second in OPS and fifth in slugging percentage.

Last year, Almora was the clubhouse leader in the top spot, with 46 starts (though most came against lefties). Rizzo finished second (31 starts) and Daniel Murphy was third (30), as he started nearly every game he played in a Cubs uniform leading off.

Last spring, there was so much made about Ian Happ going into the new season as "the guy" in the spot, and things got off to a great start when he sent the very first pitch of the season into the right-field bleachers at Marlins Park on Opening Day.

But Happ only started another 6 games in that spot as he went through some early-season struggles in his sophomore year.

It was not all that dissimilar to 2017, when Kyle Schwarber was being labeled the new leadoff hitter in spring, only to eventually struggle to live up to that spot and endure a season of inconsistent offensive performance.

So Maddon won't tab anybody as "the guy" this spring, instead continuing to keep it a revolving door unless somebody steps up. He's open to the possibility that one of the guys currently on the roster grows into that stable, consistent leadoff hitter.

"Of course, but I don't know who that is yet," Maddon said. "We still have a lot of young hitters finding their way. I thought Schwarber for sure a couple years ago was a lock — I really did. Just based on his ability to see pitches and I was basing that more on on-base percentage, setting the table up and again, coming around the next time, hitting with somebody on base.

"Albert has shown to be really good with lefties up there, Zo has shown very good against righties. I'm wide open. If somebody wants to take it, it's yours — take it. But for me right now, I'm expecting to move it around again."

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