Chicago Cubs: Albert Almora Jr. Next Piece of the Core

Feb 29, 2016; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora poses for a portrait during photo day at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 29, 2016; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora poses for a portrait during photo day at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

The latest piece to the Chicago Cubs core, Albert Almora, is ready to make an impact upon the club going forward.

When Theo Epstein was hired to be the Chicago Cubs’ President in the fall of 2011 he inherited one of the worst run franchises in all of baseball. The rebuilding process he and new GM Jed Hoyer would have to undertake appeared to be one of the more daunting tasks any front office had ever faced. It held the potential to quickly devolve into a precarious position, even with the initial, inherent benefit of the doubt they would be bestowed with on account of Epstein’s impeccable track record. With such a tall task at hand, and such lofty expectations mounting, the first moves of the Epstein era came with the utmost pressure.

Fast forward a half decade and the Cubs are a juggernaut, on pace to be one of the best teams in the history of baseball. The adulation and admiration being showered upon the Theo-led front office on Chicago’s north side is well documented and well deserved. While the front office certainly deserves praise for their moves in free agency, the trade market, and on draft day, what is often forgotten is that young man who served as the first ray of hope. The young man’s name is Albert Almora. On June 4, 2012, Almora, just eighteen years old at the time, became the original first round draft pick Theo Epstein would make as President of the Chicago Cubs.

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The drafting of Almora represented the onset of a paradigm shift in the philosophical approach of an entire organization. He was raw, but his skill lent itself to a developmental track that stood a good chance to produce the particular sort of play the Cubs hoped to establish as “the Cubs way.” Defense held a prominent role in his game. Almora possessed the raw, explosive speed and acceleration necessary for an outfielder to cover ample ground, but he also possessed the innate instincts and quick reaction times that lend themselves to getting a good jump on, and taking the most efficient route to, the ball. Nearly from day one his glove has been major league ready. It was always going to be a matter of determining when his bat would be ready to contribute.

While Almora will never be able to generate the sort of bat speed that leads to the otherworldly exit velocities and launch angles produced by the power of other recent Cubs phenoms, his plate discipline and hand eye coordination enable him to take a plate approach that is mature beyond his years.

This, too, was a new staple the Theo Epstein Cubs sought to instill throughout their organization. It has been reflected in the sorts of players they’ve sought to build their lineup around. Yet, instead of becoming slaves to one specific offensive philosophy, the Cubs are simply looking for the most efficient way to get runners on base and score runs.

Prior to the developments of the past week there simply hadn’t been a big league spot available for Almora. That all changed when Jorge Soler made his sixth trip to the DL in the past three seasons, pulling a hamstring in Philadelphia Monday night. The Cubs were already being forced to utilize creative outfield solutions in the aftermath of Kyle Schwarber’s season ending knee injury just four games into the season. With Soler struggling for much of the first third of the season, the team had been relying upon infield depth, shifting Kris Bryant to corner outfield spots while the likes of Javy Baez and Tommy LaStella got time at third, but a more permanent solution was lacking. Then, just as Soler seemed to be finding his stroke at the plate, he went down.

The easy move would have been to dip into the minors for a veteran “AAAA” type guy like Matt Murton or Ryan Kalish, or maybe even give a call to Shane Victorino, who had left a good impression as a non-roster invitee this past spring. However, with Almora finally carrying over his solid spring training to regular season minor league productivity the team brass decided it was as good a time as any to add him to the fold.

What he brings was immediately made clear. In his first start Wednesday afternoon he threw out Phillies speedster Odubel Herrera in the first inning of a scoreless game which starter John Lackey, and a potent Cubs lineup would later take full command of.

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In both the short and long-term, Almora will play a role similar to that of Jason Heyward. Their gloves make them immensely useful, and while their bats have potential, even when quieted their overall impact on a game can still be profound. The little things, which used to go less appreciated in an era when they were not as quantifiable, are what this young Cub will major in.

His fit on the roster for the remainder of this season is uncertain. Once Soler returns from the disabled list the team will be forced to either send Almora back down, or else essentially surrender Matt Szczur, who is out of options, to the vultures of the waiver wire.

Still, if Almora plays himself into a more permanent role the Cubs will not hesitate to keep him around. There’s no reason to believe his outfield play will be anything but of the highest quality, and if such continues to prove to be true, in combination with a greatly improved Fowler in center, and the always Gold Glove caliber Heyward in right, they could challenge Pittsburgh for the title of best all-around and most athletic defensive outfield in baseball. The Cubs, with their current approach, would be unlikely to give up on such a development.

They’ve already demonstrated a willingness to keep top prospects around once they prove they belong. Last season it happened twice: first, when Addison Russell took over at second base following a collection of other more seasoned prospects inability to hold down the role, and later when Kyle Schwarber began single handedly carrying the lineup through a midseason swoon during what was supposed to be a mere cameo appearance for an injured Miguel Montero.

It is in part due to the aforementioned rapid ascensions to starring roles that Almora had recently become so overlooked, forgotten, and even disregarded. By any normal standard, a kid taken #6 overall, out of high school, who is still just barely 22 and rapidly developing at AAA would be considered well on track. By recent Cubs standards, he’s stalled out. Such is an immensely faulty perception.

Whatever happens this season, in the long run Almora has a clear path to a role as a member of the Cubs core. With Dexter Fowler likely to cash in big with another team this offseason, an opening in center field will emerge. With the likes of Heyward, Zobrist, Russell, Baez, and an greatly defensively underrated Kris Bryant already on the roster, this could quickly become one of the better defensive in recent memory. Almora could be the linchpin of a potentially dynastic roster.

It’s funny how things come full circle. The Cubs initially passed on Russell, who was heavier than they would have liked at the time, in favor of Almora with that #6 overall pick back in 2012. Now both are 22 year old defensive stalwarts on the best team in baseball. Six days after making Almora their first ever draft pick, Theo Epstein and company signed Cuban sensation Jorge Soler after winning a lengthy bidding war against other big market competitors. Now, Soler, who has struggled to gain traction in the big leagues, has pulled his hamstring, making the room for Almora to come take his spot as the last member of the core the front office began dreaming up all those years ago.

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Chicago Cubs fans hope the circle is completed with the first of many championships. For Almora Jr, he hopes this is the beginning of a big league dream come true.