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."

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon

Listen here or via the embedded player below: