NEW YORK – On the flight to New York on Thursday, a Cub fan had a message he wanted delivered to Cubs manager Joe Maddon:
“Ask Joe why he’s not playing Almora every day.”
“I am,” Maddon said. “Basically I am.”
Apparently, it’s not good enough. Judging from social media and radio callers, the Albert Almora Jr. question from the plane seems to be the most pressing question among fans this side of “What’s the deal with that Darvish fellow?”
“I can’t emphasize enough for those on Twitter asking these questions: It’s really important to balance all these guys’ playing time,” Maddon said of a young group of outfielders he rotates with veterans Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist in his outfield: Almora, Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber.
Almora (24), still the second-youngest hitter on the team to Happ (23), is getting more playing time than most Cubs.
He’s also the team’s leading hitter (.319) and by some metrics the best defensive center fielder in the National League.
He even delivered the two-run, go-ahead double in the Cubs’ 14th –inning victory over the Mets on Saturday night.
So can the No. 6 overall pick from the 2012 draft get to the next level of playing time in Maddon’s mind and daily lineup – along with the likes of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo?
“Of course, he can,” Maddon said. “But for right now, with the birth certificates the way they are, and the potential of all these different guys, it’s really important that I move it around as much as I can.”
Because two trends point to a possible ascension on the near horizon for Almora, especially when the heat is turned up in September and potentially another October.
One is the quality Almora shares with the finest seafood restaurants, offering a Catch of the Day nearly every time he starts – including Friday night’s soccer slide onto the right-center warning track after a long run to rob Jay Bruce of extra bases and two RBI in the first inning.
“I know I can’t go 4-for-4 every day,” he said. “But I feel like in my mind I can try to be perfect out there [in center] and help guys out. There’s no better feeling in the world than when you come in and your pitcher is waiting for you with open arms. It’s awesome.”
And, two: The Cubs are 23-11 when Almora starts, with a losing record when he doesn’t. They haven’t won any of the five in which he hasn’t played at all.
“Maybe he’s doing as well as he is because of the way he is being used,” Maddon said. “He’s fresh every day he plays. That’s part of it, too. And then here comes August and September, I want him to be playing this level of baseball then, too.”
Almora seems sure that wouldn’t be a problem, but he’s focused only on trying to win when he does play.
“I’m just as selfish [as anyone]; as a competitor you want to be there day in and day out,” he said. “Who wouldn’t tell you that? But obviously Joe does a good job of mixing everybody in and out, and putting us in good spots. I’m just putting my head down and playing, man.”
Teammates know what they see.
“I love what he provides to the team,” Bryant said. “You know he’s going to go out there and make a spectacular catch. He’s still learning, but he’s had some really great at-bats and a really great start. I think he’s opened a lot of eyes.”
But Almora isn’t thinking about playing time, he said.
“Just because let’s say you start thinking about it,” he said, “and you’re not in there one day and gets you in a bad attitude and it starts reflecting in the clubhouse and stuff like that.
“I just want to play hard whenever I’m given the chance, and if there’s a time where it’s day in and day out, then I’ll be happy to help however I can each day.”