The 2017 season was a great year for Albert Almora, the 23-year old Cubs center-fielder. Sure he slashed a respectable .298/.348/.445 while playing high-level defense at a premium position in a limited role, but at this stage in his career, growth is what matters. The inconsistency of his role with the team could ultimately become a detriment to his development, but that’s just an unfortunate side effect of the team having a plethora of talented young position players and a manager that is constantly trying to find a competitive advantage via matchups.
Sticking with the theme of growth as a measure of success for the young Almora, Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein has been quick to praise not only Almora’s progress and tools but also his ability to learn, grow, and make adjustments while taking feedback from those with more experience around him. Here’s what Epstein had to say in a late September 2017 interview with 670 The Score’s Mully and Hanley Show,
“It’s been a great growth season for Albert. Things aren’t binary. It’s not like there’s a switch that goes off and he goes from prospect to established everyday player or star. It’s a gradual process. The key is to keep growing and keep improving and make the most of the opportunities you have. Albert has done a lot of things that we knew he could do — hit left-handed pitching extremely well, hit fastballs extremely well, hit the ball in extremely well, play with really good instincts, running the bases well, has played — after an unusual start to the season — has played really good defense in center field, is a great team player.“
“And he’s started to work on the things that have held him back a little bit to this point in his career, just things he’ll need to address like every player needs to address things. And mainly for him, it’s just not chasing and handling right-handed spin, right-handed breaking stuff. This is a kid who takes hundreds of balls off the slider machine on just about a daily basis trying to get better. And you’ve seen him now start to apply that in the game. Those improvements are starting to manifest in games.”
I, like most Cubs fans, have made a habit lately of taking Epstein at his word, but these comments on Almora’s improvements will ultimately mean very little without any tangible improvements in 2018 and beyond. Almora being able to hold down the everyday duties in centerfield would be a meaningful positive for the Cubs, especially given the defensive liability that is Kyle Schwarber is expected to get the bulk of starts in left field. While Almora may not be likely to start 130+ games in 2018 after starting only 65 (and playing in 104 total) in centerfield in 2017, a reasonably strong case can be made for him to be slotted into a meaningfully more prominent role as we move closer and closer to opening day 2018.
Almora’s 2017 slash line was very similar to that of his fellow Cubs center-fielders in 2017 (.298/.338/.445 for Almora vs. .280/.347/.441 for all Cubs center-fielders). Obviously his numbers influence the tallies for the group as a whole, but the point remains that Almora delivers a similar, if not better, level of offensive production compared to his peers. Almora’s numbers were also nicely above the league median for center-fielders (.262/.327/.414), and such production came in limited and sometimes quite sparse playing time. Above average offensive production at a premium defensive position is not something Cubs fans should make a habit of brushing off, regardless of how much the team is paying its right fielder for ground balls and Gold Gloves.
The largest, and most valid, criticism of Almora’s offensive game is his struggles against right-handed pitching as referenced by Epstein in the aforementioned quote. Roughly 63 percent of Almora’s at-bats in 2017 came against right-handed pitching, compared to ~75 percent for the Cubs as a whole. Clearly Manager Joe Maddon was managing Almora towards his strengths, and it appears to have had a positive impact on his development despite the sporadic playing time that players can sometimes find disruptive to any “groove” they might believe to have gotten themselves into. Almora’s final three months of the 2017 season were arguably his three best statistical months (September and October combined as one moth) of the regular season, though each month following a slow start in April and May were marked by solid production from the young center-fielder.
Almora’s inability to lay off of bad breaking stuff from righties, as noted by Epstein, is a key sticking point, and the youngster appears to have a meaningful susceptibility to chasing sliders, with an overall O-Swing (percentage of swings at pitches outside the strike zone) of 50.4 percent in 2017 on sliders (split data broken down by pitch type unavailable). 21 of his 53 strikeouts in the year also came against sliders. The scouting report is out on Almora, but now it is time for him to flash the immeasurables that many of his peers have raved about as he continues to develop.
While this analysis has focused intensely on Almora’s 2017 production, fans should have no reason to doubt his work ethic and desire to improve as it relates to his projected production in 2018 and beyond. His intangibles and baseball IQ have received praise from teammates like Kris Bryant and Jon Jay, as well as others around baseball such as Baltimore Orioles superstar Manny Machado, not to mention the tremendously complimentary comments from Epstein. After all, his heads up base running in the 10th inning of Game 7 in the 2016 World Series was key to the Cubs victory.
Such levelheadedness will be important in Almora’s ongoing development, and Cubs fans should be similarly excited about the potential steps forward he can make in 2018 as they are about the potential re-emergence of Kyle Schwarber as a legitimate and consistent threat, regardless of the lack of comparability of their skill sets (okay maybe not as excited). If Almora is able to continue making progress in handling breaking pitches from righties, he should become the everyday starter in centerfield for the Cubs. That may not come early on or even at all in 2018, but Cubs fans, and management, would be wise to show a high level of stick-with-it-ness with Almora. After all, he is delivering better offensive production than the right fielder that is costing the team more than $28 million in 2018, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Almora’s emergence as a viable offensive threat as a center-fielder against both right-handed and left-handed pitching would go a long way in deepening the Cubs’ already explosive lineup. Assuming Almora locks down the centerfield position, the team would have two top-notch switch-hitting utility players in Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ, a luxury few teams across the league can boast, and one that becomes even more dangerous in the hands of mad-scientist manager Joe Maddon. One thing is certain, the Cubs will be a force to be reckoned with in 2018, and Albert Almora’s development has the potential to make it that much stronger.