ST. LOUIS – The final votes won’t be tabulated for weeks, but major league baseball might already have its first All-Star snub.
Barring a hefty write-in campaign, the fifth-leading hitter in the National League – and top-two defensive center fielder in the league – figures to be fishing somewhere in Miami instead of suiting up for the All-Star game in Miami a month from now.
“I try not to think too much about it, man, because I can’t control it,” said Albert Almora Jr., the Cubs’ leading hitter at .321.
Fan ballots for the starting lineups have been out for weeks. This weekend players around the majors are filling out their ballots to determine most of the reserves.
Because teams submitted their projected starters and/or top veterans at each position for the ballots during spring training, Almora is not on either ballot.
“It’s unfortunate people are probably just going to pay attention to what’s going on, on the ballot,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But of course he’s having an All-Star season. Offensively, defensively, base running – everything he’s done is All-Star caliber, there’s no question about it.”
And he’s just getting started.
“We haven’t seen the best of Albert yet,” teammate Addison Russell said.
Almora’s three hits from the leadoff spot Friday night in the victory over the Cardinals boosted him into the top five in the league in hitting overall – and his average when starting to .341 with a .385 on-base percentage.
The Cubs are 18-9 this season when Almora bats in the leadoff spot.
“He’s been a really important spark plug for our team,” veteran teammate Ben Zobrist said. “With his offense and defense, he’s been spectacular.”
Especially for a guy in his second full season in the big leagues, who was supposed to be the right-handed side of a center field platoon when the season started – after Ian Happ’s huge spring training put Happ in the Opening Day leadoff spot and in the driver’s seat for first crack at big playing time in center.
The common expectation for Almora this year was that he might take a step forward in his development toward becoming an everyday player.
“He took about two or three, or four or five steps forward,” Maddon said.
Since then Almora has done nothing but fill highlight reels with catches in center and earn increasing playing time with arguably the most consistent performance at the plate since the season began.
That includes a .312 average against right-handers – an improvement Maddon said the club told Almora he needed to make to earn more starts.
“That’s where you’ve got to give the guy credit,” Maddon said. “We told him that, and he’s done something about it.”
Almora, the No. 6 overall draft pick in 2012, said that was mostly a function of getting more experience facing right-handers this year.
“You kind of see it blossom before your eyes the last couple years,” Zobrist said, “and this year he’s really kind of proving himself a lot more to the league.”
Whether that leads to significant write-in support from NL players, Almora isn’t holding his breath – or worrying about it.
“That would be pretty cool if my peers, players that I played against, [voted that way]; that would be neat,” he said. “But, yeah, man, I’ll probably be in Miami.”
For now, the Cubs’ most deserving All-Star candidate this side of Jon Lester said he takes pride in seeing how many teammates ranked among the leading vote getters at their position a few days ago when the first fan-voting update was released.
Almora, who ranks second to Lorenzo Cain in the league among center fielders in several defensive categories (despite 160 fewer innings), said his plans for the break include spending time at home with his wife and son, and maybe try to go fishing.
He’s also willing to make last-minute changes to his travel plans, if he gets the call.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said.