Cubs

How Albert Almora can benefit from his demotion, from someone who did just that

How Albert Almora can benefit from his demotion, from someone who did just that

It is Day 3 of Albert Almora Jr.'s demotion.

It reminds me of a rule I once heard about when I was coming up in the minor leagues and in big league camp: You get 72 hours of “mental leave” after a demotion. Rarely would anyone take it all because you want to play, or at least you want to show that you are hungry even after disappointment. How could you take a leave when you get to play baseball? And let’s not forget, every day you are not playing, someone else is gaining on you.

Almora was flirting with an All-Star appearance after the first half of 2018. He was hitting .319 with 19 doubles and a near .800 OPS at the break. This matched the expectations of the player the Cubs drafted in the first round of the 2012 MLB Draft. He was already a world champion and now on his way to becoming an All-Star.

His 2018 first half came after Almora had a tough spring training. The center field job seemed to come down to the youth of Ian Happ and Almora. Almora had the defensive skills and the potential to hit for a high average, while Happ brought the athleticism, power, and three-outcome swagger. Happ then hits a home run on the first pitch of Opening Day as Almora’s future came into question, but then when Almora got the opportunity he thrived through May and June until the second half slowed him down.

This past week, his 2019 demotion has been framed as a developmental move made necessary because the team needs an offensive push to maximize run scoring opportunity. When sent down, players hear every explanation the same way. It is the parent saying to you, “This will hurt me more than it will hurt you.”

Almora has not been able to find a rhythm, which can happen any year and any time. In his case, his declining at-bats combined with the re-emergence of Happ, made for an opportunity issue for him. If the Cubs were rebuilding or the rest of the lineup was hitting like a well-oiled machine, Almora’s defense would take over as a key priority and would add value to his presence. Especially when defense has become so critical in the late innings.

It has also become more beneficial to Almora and any defensively skilled outfielder, as the Cubs maintain the offensive priorities in left-field where Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos’ strengths remain on the offensive side of the ball. Almora gives the Cubs leverage to cover for their bats in the late innings.

His 2019 metrics defensively have not flushed out his skills in ways that shine the best light on his game. He currently sits on -2 Defensive Runs Saved, which is one way to measure his performance. That puts him in the middle of the center field pack. Newly released Billy Hamilton was at +9 at the time of his being released, which does not help Almora’s defensive case. If Almora is not hitting like he did in the first half of the 2018, this becomes a bigger issue for his future opportunity.

In my first major league stint, I was called up on June 9, 1996, then sent back down in late July. I wasn’t playing much. A platoon here and there. Pinch running, pinch hitting. So when I did get sent down to play every day, part of me was looking forward to uninterrupted play. No double switches, matchups, metrics, pinches. Just go play and get your timing back. Despite wanting to be in the big leagues, a struggling player when confronted with rotting on the bench in a rhythmless ocean, or playing every day when he knows he will get called back up in a couple of weeks, may be able to find the silver lining. In fact, regardless, he needs to find it anyway.

That was true for in the early stages of my big league career, a pill much harder to swallow when you have had more established time in the major leagues as Almora has had. But, if you can take two weeks and find your swing that takes you through a long career, it is worth it. You just can’t see it at the time. That outcome certainly beats playing sporadically for the rest of your career. The idea of a long career will look brighter and brighter, even if it is hard to see when the disappointment of being sent down is clouding your vision.

For Almora, this is a time for the long view. A humbling time which spares no one in this game. All players slow down, all struggle at some point. Even the best of the best. Almora just had not reached the place in his career where the struggle is seen as the exception not the rule.

When he returns, the Cubs will still be on that final push for the pennant. He could be a key contributor in this effort, even though he may not be automatically penciled in the lineup as a starter. He will still have an important role, not to mention an audition for the post-season roster and beyond.

It comes down to what he puts into his time in Triple-A. A time when he can tap what he learned from big leaguers when he had just signed. Early on, I learned that much of the veteran mentorship focused on learning patience, staying positive, building confidence. Many of the fixes after a demotion are beyond the physical and mechanical, but getting into a certain space that allows you to be your best.

Right now for Almora, it could just be playing time. Time that he can depend on, time to reflect, time without the high media alerts or the versatility that makes consistency hard to achieve.

Either way, he will be back and the Cubs are wondering which half he will be. They also know, they need the first half 2018 Almora to show up in September. This only helps their chances.

He knows it and if it is any indication, going 2 for 4 with a double in his first game in Iowa certainly is a good start.

What will Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once Addison Russell returns?

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USA Today

What will Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once Addison Russell returns?

What will the Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once - or if - Addison Russell is able to return to the field?

Russell is still in concussion protocol and it's unknown when he will resume baseball activities. There are no clear timelines for head injuries and every person responds differently.

He was still showing symptoms this weekend after taking a 94 mph fastball to the face in Milwaukee last Sunday. Russell meets with team doctors each day, but will be relegated to the bench until he is given medical clearance to return.

Even if Russell is able to play again over these next couple days, how could the Cubs possibly take Hoerner out of the lineup right now?

The rookie collected 3 more hits Saturday, including a 3-run homer in the sixth inning:

That now gives him 11 RBI in his first six MLB games.

"Nico's performance cannot be overlooked," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "That [homer] was the first pitch he saw yesterday? I mean, c'mon. And beyond that, the thing I'm really focused on is the defense. He's really done a nice job on defense, which we really need that moment out there. The offense has been a plus.

"I have not given that thought until I know that Addison is ready to rock and roll. And once he does, I know one thing for sure - even if Nico were to start the game, we could upgrade the defense later with Addison in the game, too. So it's one of those things - I don't even permit myself to go there. I don't even know if [Russell is] gonna play or not. I don't know that.

"So in the meantime, Nico: just keep doing what you're doing. He's impressed probably the industry, but more importantly - the clubhouse. The guys have really been impressed by him."

It’s been a nightmare season for Russell. He missed the first month serving out the rest of his suspension for violating MLB's domestic violence policy. He was optioned to Triple-A Iowa initially after the suspension and then came up to the big leagues, where he struggled and was unable to carve out consistent playing time despite the Cubs' need for production at second base.

Russell was then demoted to the minors again in late-July after persistent baserunning/mental mistakes. When Javy Baez went down with injury on the last homestand, Russell stepped in to play shortstop (his natural position), but committed a throwing error in three straight games last weekend in Milwaukee.

Saturday marked only the 95th professional game in Hoerner's career, but he has drawn rave reviews from every corner of the Cubs clubhouse, including seasoned veteran Jon Lester tabbing him as a sparkplug.

Less than a week ago, Hoerner was sitting at home in Oakland with his family, thinking his regular season was done and getting ready to play in the Arizona Fall League soon.

Now, he and his family are at Wrigley Field, soaking it all in:

"[My first game at Wrigley] was amazing. It felt like I had always hoped it would," Hoerner said. "Something you think about for a long time and it definitely lived up to the hype. I had hyped it up to my family a lot just from seeing one game here last year. I said it was unlike anything I had ever seen before and they agreed."

After his debut week, it's natural for fans to wonder if Hoerner should be the Cubs' starting shortstop on a playoff roster even if Russell is able to come back healthy. Baez's exact timeline looms as an x-factor here, too.

Who knows how this will all play out over the next two weeks, but the Cubs have to get to October first and right now, Hoerner is clearly the answer to help them do so.

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How Cubs are viewing the Cardinals-Brewers series this weekend

How Cubs are viewing the Cardinals-Brewers series this weekend

While the Cubs are battling the last-place Pirates at Wrigley Field and trying to claw their way back into an enviable spot in the pennant race, their top two competitors are squaring off in St. Louis.

The Cardinals and Brewers are playing each other this weekend, and the Redbirds already took Game 1 Friday night. With that and the Cubs' big win, it moves the Brewers 1 game behind the Cubs in the fight for the final National League playoff spot. But it also kept the Cubs 4 games behind the Cardinals in the division with only 15 to play.

No matter what happens down in the shadow of the arch, the Cubs have to take care of business themselves this weekend. That much is a given.

The perfect scenario would include sweeping the Pirates and the fourth-place Reds before the Cardinals come into town for a four-game series beginning Thursday night.

But the series in St. Louis is prime fodder for scoreboard watchers, and it also brings about an interesting conundrum for Cubdom: Are fans and the team rooting for the Cardinals or Brewers?

The Cardinals already won the first game, but if they were to sweep and the Cubs also sweep, the Cubs would remain 4 games back of the division with only 13 to play. However, they would also hold a 3-game lead on the Brewers in the Wild-Card race, which is crucial given Milwaukee's schedule the rest of the way is cake (San Diego, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Colorado). 

If the Brewers storm back to win the next two games while the Cubs take care of their own business, it would diminish the NL Central lead to only 2 games with 13 to play — including 7 head-to-head matchups between the Cubs and Cardinals.

Which is the better scenario? 

"Our goal is to win the division, so you want any kind of help you could possibly get to win the division," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "So that would be that the Brewers would beat the Cardinals. It doesn't matter — just Cubs win, Cubs win. We just gotta take care of our own house and if you do that, this is all gonna work out properly. 

"Rooting interests or whatever — yes, I did look at the score before I went to bed last night, but I was much happier about the fact that we really swung the bats well [Friday] and the bullpen was great."

The Cubs have admitted over the last few weeks that they've been scoreboard-watching a bit and are cognizant of the incredible run the Cardinals have been on. They also have the advantage of playing in the afternoon both Friday and Saturday and seeing their games conclude before the Brewers and Cardinals even begin.

But that doesn't mean the players care one way or the other. 

"Earmuffs — we don't give a shit about what anybody else is doing," Jason Heyward said. "We have enough fun right here with what we can control and after that, we leave it up to whatever's going on. That's out of our hands.

"We've done a lot of winning [at Wrigley Field] fortunately and that's fun to be a part of. But along with that is not worrying about what everybody else is doing. And that's the fun part of this job and the fun part about being with a group of guys like this here."

Even if the players aren't super concerned with scoreboard watching, Cubs fans are going to have their eyes glued to the box scores early next week, too. Before the Cardinals come to Wrigley, they will host the Wild-Card-leading Washington Nationals for three games Monday through Wednesday.

That means if the Cubs continue to win, they will be guaranteed to gain ground on at least one of the teams they're chasing each day.

Of course, if the Cubs can't win at home — where they're 48-24 this season — this is all a moot point.