Cubs 2020 roster outlook: Albert Almora Jr. looking to rebound behind new swing

Cubs 2020 roster outlook: Albert Almora Jr. looking to rebound behind new swing

Each day in March, NBC Sports Chicago is previewing one player from the Cubs’ expected 2020 Opening Day roster. Next up is center fielder Albert Almora Jr.

2019 recap

2019 was a trying year for Almora. He admitted last month he wasn’t in a good place mentally, citing his personal on-field struggles and the Cubs’ collectively as a team.

In 130 games, Almora hit .236/.271/.381 with a 64 wRC+, all career lows. His defense in center field — long his calling card — took a step back; the 25-year-old sported a -5 Defensive Runs Saved and 3 Outs Above Average, down from 10 and 11 a season prior.

Above all that, Almora tragically struck a young girl in the stands with a foul ball during a game against the Astros last May. The girl was rushed to the hospital, and — as we learned later — sustained a permanent brain injury.

Almora, a father of two, says the heartbreaking moment impacted him, but he won’t use it as an excuse for his on-field struggles. He’s human, so we know the two are at least somewhat related, however. We can also point to some of his tendencies that limited him at the plate.

In the day and age of shifting, Almora's groundball rate (53.1 percent) was far too high, as was his soft contact rate (23.9 percent). That’s a recipe for disaster and Almora didn’t make up for it by drawing many free passes (4.4 percent walk rate — again, poor). He also averaged 3.66 pitches/plate appearance (league average is 3.93, per 600 PAs).

You can be successful with an aggressive approach (see: Baez, Javy) but Almora wasn’t making enough quality contact, plain and simple.

Expectations for this season’s role

Almora and Ian Happ will split time in center field this season, with manager David Ross mixing-and-matching the duo to maximize the Cubs' offense. The position was a weak spot last season; Cubs center fielders combined to post a .232/.305/.388 slash line — second-lowest amongst all positions on the team.

2020 outlook

Take spring training numbers lightly, but Almora’s hitting .381/.435/.714 with two home runs in eight games. He changed his swing, now standing more upright in the batter’s box to start. His stance is less open, and he features a reduced leg kick and less front leg rotation as he loads up to swing.

These changes could help him fight off tough pitches better, while also maximizing the damage he does on mistakes. With the reduced movement, he’s more direct to the ball and has increased time to react.

With Happ in the picture, Almora will receive the bulk of his starts against lefties. Historically, he's fared well against them, but last year was a different story.

Almora vs. lefties

  2016-18 2019
AVG .309 .213
OBP .360 .254
SLG .456 .278
BB% 7.4 4.4
K% 12.2 18.4

Improving internally is the poster child for the 2020 Cubs, and Almora returning to form against lefties is a big part of that. Historically, he's been under average against righties, and with last season's struggles against southpaws, it was hard to find playing time for him. This especially was true after Nick Castellanos came aboard — the Cubs acquired him at the trade deadline in part because of Almora's issues at the plate.

The Cubs don't need Almora to hit like Castellanos did last summer. Getting back to his 2016-18 level would lengthen the lineup, and his contact-oriented approach will help move the ball around with runners on base. 

It's important to note the mental side of things cannot be understated, and Almora spent the offseason decompressing and leaning on his loved ones for support.

He's in a better place now than last September, and combined with his new approach, there's hope for a better performance in 2020.

The complete roster outlook series:

1. Cubs hoping Kris Bryant stabilizes leadoff spot in 2020
2. Kyle Hendricks is a steady force in the Cubs' rotation
3. Kyle Schwarber is primed for a breakout 2020 season
4. Tyler Chatwood has chance to rewrite the script in 2020
5. David Bote searching for more offensive consistency in 2020
6. One pitch could hold key to Jose Quintana's 2020 success

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Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts: 'We’d definitely like to see baseball back'

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts: 'We’d definitely like to see baseball back'

Should MLB and the players union come to terms on a 2020 season, clubs will suffer revenues losses due to the expected lack of fans at most or all games. But if it comes down to playing or not, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts prefers the former.

Ricketts said Tuesday the organization "definitely" would rather play an abbreviated 2020 season despite reports suggesting clubs could lose more money under the March agreement to pay players prorated salaries than not playing at all.

"We’ll have to see how it goes but we’d definitely like to see baseball back," Ricketts said on CNBC's 'The Exchange.' "We’d like to see the team back on the field. I know the players want to play, I know the manager wants to manage and I know even if it’s on television only, I think people want to see baseball back."

MORE: Why Cubs, MLB might face 2020 season without key players and what it means

Major League Baseball is meeting with the union on Tuesday to propose financial terms for the 2020 season. NBC Sports Chicago reported Saturday that proposal is expected to be a compromise from the potential 50-50 revenue split previously reported. 

According to MLB insider Jon Heyman, that proposal includes paying players a portion of their prorated salaries, and those with higher salaries would take the biggest pay cuts.

Ricketts suggested in a best-case scenario, the Cubs might make 20 percent of their usual revenues, which appears tied to the one-time startup cost for the club's TV network, Wrigley Field construction costs and buying surrounding buildings in Wrigleyville. Those numbers are disputed by some, however, as owners don't open their books.

MLB's proposal for the season entails a second 'spring' training starting in mid-June, with Opening Day coming around the Fourth of July. Ricketts said the latter isn't out of the question. However, those dates are contingent on the league and union reaching an agreement in the near future.

"It really comes down to how quickly and efficiently the league and the union can get together and hack through the issues," he said.

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Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Cubs fans may remember Dan Straily. The right-hander pitched for the club in 2014, making seven appearances (one start) before getting dealt to the Houston Astros the ensuing offseason in the Dexter Fowler trade.

Straily now pitches for the Lotte Giants in the KBO, South Korea's highest level of pro ball. The league kicked its season off earlier this month without fans in attendance, a model MLB will likely follow for most (if not all) of its potential 2020 season.

Jon Frankel, a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," recently interviewed current and former KBO players about the league's return during the coronavirus pandemic. In an excerpt made available via press release, Frankel asked Straily if he misses playing in front of a crowd.

MORE: Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

"Of course. Like, even if you're on the road, and people are just telling you how much you suck — you thrive off it," Straily said. "You feed off that energy.”

Crowd noise obviously plays a big part in an athlete's adrenaline. Not having that factor will be an adjustment for MLB in 2020, and Straily took things a step further regarding the circumstances players face without fans in attendance.

“My shortstop dove for a ball. And he missed it by, like, an inch," he said. "Like, it was an incredible effort. When he hit the ground, I heard the air leave his lungs. And we've talked about that in the dugout. Because I've never once in my life heard that.”

Not having crowds to drown out on-field noise could make for a unique viewing experience for fans at home. UFC returned on May 9, and many punches and kicks were audible on ESPN's TV broadcast.

MLB teams could play proxy crowd noise in games, but nevertheless, fans may pickup noises on their TVs previously unavailable from home.

The full episode will air Tuesday at 9 p.m. CT on HBO.

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