Cubs

The Cubs are seeing the real Albert Almora Jr. right now

The Cubs are seeing the real Albert Almora Jr. right now

This is who Albert Almora Jr. is as a player right now.

He's the guy with video game instincts who defies gravity to take away runs from the other team, as he did Wednesday night in Atlanta:

He's also the guy who expanded the zone and struck out in the 5th and 7th innings of the Cubs' 4-1 loss, the latter whiff coming on two nasty sliders low and away — the Achilles' heel for the young outfielder.

Those two at-bats — particularly the last one — are why Almora still won't play every single day and why Joe Maddon and the Cubs are going to continue to pick their spots with him against right-handed pitchers.

But the Cubs can live with those strikeouts when Almora is flashing Gold Glove caliber plays on what seems like an everyday basis.

Almora entered the day with a sizeable lead in Major League Baseball in "Good Fielding" catches, per Sports Info Solutions and only added to that total with yet another jaw-dropping play:

We've come to expect excellent defense from Almora, but it's safe to say he's taken things to another level this year. 

Why?

Because he's playing with a chip on his shoulder and a swagger only bested by Javy Baez (who is the King of Swag on the Cubs, of course).

After he made that ridiculous catch Wednesday night in Atlanta, Almora did a little hat-tip and was sure to catch his own replay on the video board.

You might also have noticed he seems to yell at the wall when he tracks a ball down in the gap — a guttural release to let out his adrenaline and to remind that pesky wall that he's not afraid of it.

After a particularly thrilling catch near the wall at Wrigley earlier this season, Almora screamed at the ivy-covered brick and said, "Not today."

"You can tell he's been himself when he's being aggressive on defense," Theo Epstein said at the beginning of the month about his first draft pick in the Cubs front office. "His first couple years, he was a good defender but he didn't play with quite the same conviction and aggressiveness in center field as he did in the minor leagues.

"So you can tell he's feeling really comfortable with his role and his spot in the big leagues by how he's going to get the ball, how he's finishing the plays at the end of his range.

"That's always who he was, way back to high school. He's always the guy who would make plays on balls you wouldn't think he could get to. He would find ways to stay involved defensively — throwing behind runners, leaving his feet, making the play.

"He did that in spurts the first couple years and now you've seen it really consistently. And that's him, he's a guy who does a lot like that night and night out."

But why was Almora tentative?

"I think it's natural for young players," Epstein said. "He's played a position — outfield — where we've had a lot of talented players, so sometimes you can be afraid to make a mistake and then not play for a few days. It's just natural for a young player breaking in with a good team."

When asked about Epstein's comments, a little smile crept across Almora's face.

"That's a great statement," he said. "Yeah, absolutely. I felt like last year, I played a little conservative. It wasn't me out there. This is what I've been doing all my life and we had a conversation in spring and they challenged me to be myself and be the Albert that they know and saw growing up in high school.

"And I said, 'consider it done.' If you're giving me that leeway of letting me be myself, then I'm gonna do that."

Almora has always had an extreme confidence in his own abilities and in his Cubs team, but this year, he seems different.

He's become a go-to guy in the clubhouse for the media, always ready with an upbeat, fiery statement — a la the aforementioned "consider it done" he told the front office.

In his own way, he's become a leader in just his second full year in the big leagues, though that shouldn't be a shock to anybody given Almora idolized "The Captain" Derek Jeter growing up and was always seen as a leader at every stage throughout the Cubs farm system.

Offensively, he still has some strides to make, but he's already shown a great leap in development this season by bumping his walk rate up to a very respectable 8.5 percent.

He still mashes lefties and struggles with some righties, but if he can keep making plays in the outfield, it will get easier and easier for Maddon to pencil his name in the lineup on a daily basis.

Because remember, Almora is unchained now.

"It's tough to explain," Almora said. "I just went out there and said, 'Hey, be you.' I can't put into detail what I'm doing now.

"I'm just having a lot more fun playing — and I had a lot of fun last year, so I dunno. I'm just trying to [catch] everything."

Some perspective on Pedro Strop's tough outing and struggles

Some perspective on Pedro Strop's tough outing and struggles

Pedro Strop has had a tough go of it lately, but that doesn't mean it's time to panic on one of the most consistent relievers in Cubs history.

After blowing the game Monday night in San Francisco — his third blown save of the month — Strop now has a 5.47 ERA on the year and an 8.22 mark in July alone. In fact, nearly half the runs he's allowed in 2019 have come this month — 7 of 16.

But Strop has been pitching better than his ERA indicates — his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is nearly a full run lower than his ERA this season. His strikeout rate (27.4 percent) and walk rate (8.5 percent) are the lowest they've been since 2016. 

That being said, the 34-year-old has also seen a precipitous spike in hard contact rate and his soft contact percentage is way down. He's been plagued by the home run ball this year more than ever before, serving up 1.7 dingers per 9 innings, the highest rate of his career (though the same can be said for many pitchers this season).

So Strop clearly hasn't been his typical dominant self this year, but he also deserves a better fate than he's had to this point in the season.

Take Monday night, for example. 

Strop came on to pitch the eighth inning of a game the Cubs were leading 4-2 and promptly gave up a leadoff double to Pablo Sandoval. On paper, that's obviously not a great start, but look at where this pitch was when the Giants third baseman hit it:

Strop followed that by striking out Stephen Vogt before executing a nice pitch to Brandon Crawford and inducing a groundball...only to see it sneak through the infield for an RBI hit:

Then came a groundout before Austin Slater's game-tying double that came just inches away from Albert Almora Jr.'s glove in center field. 

The final blow was the go-ahead double by Joe Panik...on a ball that was higher than Strop would've liked it, but still not a bad pitch off the plate outside:

These are not bad pitches; it's not like Strop was leaving the ball over the heart of the plate all inning.

How's this for bad luck — the Sandoval double was pegged for just a .070 expected batting average. 

Crawford's single was hit at 89.7 mph and had an expected batting average of .360. By comparison, Kyle Schwarber hit a grounder in the top of the inning at 102.9 mph with an expected batting average of .630 and it was an out. It was simply a matter of Crawford's ball finding a hole while Schwarber hit his right at a defender. 

No matter which way you slice it, this was a tough luck outing for the veteran setup man. 

But bad luck or not, Strop still hasn't been getting the consistent results the Cubs need in crucial innings of a tight playoff race, so it's understandable manager Joe Maddon was asked about the bullpen usage on his weekly appearance with 670 The Score Tuesday afternoon:

"When Pedro's in the game, I really feel good about it," Maddon said. "We all do. I think last night, it was more about pitch selection than it was necessarily about stuff. He was one pitch away from getting out of that thing. 

"If you replay and look at it, you see the hit by Sandoval — that ball literally almost bounced. It really did and it almost hit his back foot. I don't know how he kept that ball fair, but he did. Good for him. And then Crawford hits a slow ground ball up the middle that gets between two guys that are outstanding infielders and that's a hit."

Maddon went on to say the last hit — Panik's double — was the more concerning one because it was a sinker that just didn't drop enough. Maddon said he'd rather see Strop go to his wicked slider in that situation than lean on a pitch (the sinker/fastball) that has seen a dip in velocity and value this season.

"I don't think Pedro's that far off," Maddon said. "Maybe the velocity's down a little bit more than anything. To utilize his cutter/slider and really get that to where he wants it — those are the devastating pitches. So that was my bigger concern last night."

Moving forward, it doesn't sound as if Maddon will shy away from utilizing Strop in high-leverage situations again, but the Cubs also have the luxury of a pretty deep bullpen where they could utilize some other arms (Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler) to pitch the eighth inning and help bridge the gap to closer Craig Kimbrel.

Strop is 34 now and has dealt with some health issues over the last calendar year, but he has such a long track record of success that it wouldn't be surprising to see him once again emerge as a lights-out reliever before the season ends.

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Cubs lead Bears, Bulls on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list

Cubs lead Bears, Bulls on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list

The Chicago Cubs tied the Washington Redskins for 14th on Forbes' Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019 list with a $3.1 billion valuation. The Cubs' valuation grew by 7% year over year.

The Cubs are the fourth-most valuable franchise in MLB behind the Yankees ($4.1B), the Dodgers ($3.3B) and the Red Sox ($3.2B). Only seven MLB teams made the Top 50.

Two other Chicago teams, the Bears and the Bulls, are tied for 19th on the list with a value of $2.9 billion. The Bears' value grew just 2% while the Bulls' valuation grew by 12% year over year.

The rise of the pro sports teams valued over $2 billion has been pretty meteoric over the past decade. In 2012, only Manchester United was valued over $2 billion and in 2019 that number has risen to 52.

In 2012, only the Knicks and Lakers made the Top 50 list but in 2019 the Bulls are one of nine teams to earn a spot. The Bulls were the fourth-most valuable NBA franchise in 2019 behind the Knicks ($4B), Lakers ($3.7B) and Warriors ($3.5B).

Forbes credits the NBA's international prospects and worldwide revenue growth for the league's rise in the list.

No NHL teams made the list, the New York Rangers were the most-valued hockey team at $1.55 billion, 72nd highest.