Cubs’ Albert Almora waiting in the wings with starter-quality ability

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Albert Almora Jr. was all smiles after homering Monday for the Cubs. (Jon Durr/Getty Images)

There at third base Monday night was Kris Bryant, the face of the Cubs and the paragon of success in the organization. From No. 2 overall draft pick in 2013 to Rookie of the Year in 2015 and MVP in 2016? It couldn’t be drawn up any better.

Out in left field was Kyle Schwarber, the No. 4 pick in 2014 and already something of a folk hero around these parts. Hey, he’s merely the Cubs’ version of Babe Ruth.

At shortstop stood Javy Baez, the No. 9 pick in 2011 and, not for nothing, many people’s pick as the most exciting defensive player in all of baseball.

There’s seemingly a Cubs first-rounder around every corner this season. The list includes Ian Happ, the No. 9 pick in 2015. Manager Joe Maddon gave Happ a turn on the bench Monday, but the 22-year-old started four straight games before that. On Sunday against the Cardinals, Happ homered twice — resoundingly solidifying his role with the big club.

Let’s see, are we forgetting anyone? That’s right — Albert Almora Jr.

“You can’t ever forget about Albert,” Bryant said. “He’s a great player.”

Point taken. Yet Almora — the Cubs’ No. 1 pick (sixth overall) in 2012 — somehow stands apart from the four teammates mentioned above. Out of all of them, it’s Almora whose role on the Cubs has the least definition. It’s an odd reality considering how undeniably skilled a player he is.

Almora is generally considered a potentially elite defensive outfielder. He’s a terrific base runner, as anyone who recalls his tag-up from first to second base in Game 7 of the World Series would agree. He can hit, too, as evidenced by his home run into a strong wind Monday in an all-too-rare start.

Yet he’s arguably low man on the totem pole these days among Cubs position players. Almora entered the season expecting to share the starting role in center with veteran newcomer Jon Jay. Instead, Happ is getting an extended look, and Almora essentially has joined Jay in the role of pinch hitter.

They happen to be killing it; Jay (9-for-20, .450) and Almora (6-for-14, .429) are second and third in the National League in pinch-hitting average among players with at least 10 plate appearances. This type of complementary role is old hat to the 32-year-old Jay. Not so for Almora, 23, who not long ago at all was a high school sensation in Miami.

“I know my role, and I’m OK with it,” Almora said. “This is a team game, and I’m here for them.”

Forget that noise, Bryant advised.

“Albert doesn’t start for us,” he said, “but he’s more than good enough to be a starter. He could start anywhere. Everyone needs to understand that it’s got to be so frustrating for him not to be playing more, but you know what? I’ve never been around a guy who’s more prepared to have that pinch hit or be ready to start a game. He would shine no matter how much was asked of him.”

Nice coincidence: Jay goes back with Almora a ways, since Baltimore Orioles star Manny Machado introduced them and the three started working out together in their native Miami. Most days with the Cubs, Jay and Almora sit together on the bench and keep each other ready to pinch-hit.

“He asks me all game long, ‘You want to go hit in the cage?’ ” Jay said. “He’s always ready. He’s going to be fine. He’s a great player. We talk about having pride in what we’re doing right now, but I know Albert’s time is coming.”

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.



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