MESA, Ariz. – Albert Almora doesn’t have to tell anyone how big a spring this is for him, or how big a season it could be for earning a place in the middle of the Cubs’ impressive young core of hitters.
He said it all one night after last season when he was lying in bed, checking emails, exchanging texts, reading and sending tweets, looking at instagram posts and suddenly realizing how late it was getting.
“What am I doing?” he said to himself. “I’ve got to wake up at 5 to work out. This is my career.
“I’ve got to put my priorities in check.”
He deleted all the social media apps off his phone. “Everything,” he said.
Another reason he doesn’t have to tell anyone how different this year looks to him is because everyone else saw it as soon as he arrived in Mesa. He came to camp looking stronger and flashing more confidence – the first thing anyone in camp says they noticed when his name comes up.
“He’s just really been getting after it,” farm director Jaron Madison said. “He’s in a really good place mentally, feels really good. I think it’s going to be a big spring training for him this year.”
The season could be even bigger.
Almora already is one of the top two defensive outfielders in the Cubs’ organization (some would debate whether three-time Gold Glove winner Jason Heyward is better).
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said first base prospect Dan Vogelbach, Almora’s teammate much of the past three seasons. “When the ball’s hit you know it’s going to be caught.”
Nobody’s blocking Almora’s potential ascent to center field for the Cubs – with Dexter Fowler on a one-year deal and neither Jorge Soler nor Kyle Schwarber close to being a threat to handle center.
If Almora were to put himself in position to win the big-league center field job next season, it would be especially huge for a playoff-caliber team in need of another big glove in its outfield and in need of its next wave of young, impact guys to arrive from the system before last year’s rookies start hitting big arbitration paydays.
“I’m just going out there and just trying to be me,” Almora said, “and whatever happens, happens.”
It’s clearly a different Almora that will be going out there this time around, more mature entering his fourth full professional season at least, maybe more focused.
That 5 a.m. wakeup call he talked about was a daily ritual this winter, kicking off mornings spent working out at the University of Miami with a trainer and big-leaguers Yonder Alonso and Manny Machado – Machado a childhood friend from their old neighborhood in the area.
“They really pushed me,” Almora said.
But the refocus for Almora actually began last year at Class AA Tennessee. After a second slow start in as many seasons, Almora credits his manager Buddy Bailey and a brief visit by Cubs catcher Miguel Montero on a rehab assignment for helping him regroup for one of the strongest finishes in the Cubs’ system last year.
“Pretty much what I told him was just, `Take your head out of your ass and go play,’ “ said Montero, who also told Almora that regardless of his talent, better players than him have failed because of attitude. “ `You either play hard and come ready to play every day or you’re going to be stuck here for a long time.’
“That was pretty much it.”
Almora started hitting almost as soon as Montero headed back to Chicago – including a .352 August that earned him Cubs’ Minor League Player of the Month.
“I just decided, `Hey, listen, it’s time to go. I’ve got to prove that I’m a good baseball player,’ “ Almora said. “And I really don’t have to prove it. You think [to yourself], `I’ve always been that guy; just do it.’
“I took that emotion on the field and tried to take it out on the pitcher every time.”
If it sometimes seems (to him or anyone else) like it’s taking him a long time to get here – thanks in large part to the perception-warping sprints to the majors of Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber – consider that this would be Almora’s first full year in pro ball if he’d taken the college paths of those 2013 and 2014 first-rounders.
“We have to remember he’s still 21 years old. He’s still understanding what it takes to be successful at the higher levels,” Madison said. “I think he started to buy into it towards the end of last year.
“He really took control of his career this year.”
If that continues into AAA this year, the timing could fit well for both the Cubs and the first player drafted by the Cubs under Theo Epstein’s regime – No. 6 overall in 2012.
“This is awesome, seeing a bunch of buddies up here,” Almora said, looking around the clubhouse. “It’s something to work for. This is awesome to be a part of this.
“I was fortunate to be here from the beginning, when Theo got here in the beginning of 2012. And just to see how everything is unveiling right now it’s unbelievable.
“So I’m really excited.”