Cubs centerfielder Albert Almora Jr.: ‘I’m in a good mental spot right now’
If the 25-year-old Almora can successfully rebound from his worst season, it could be one of the biggest difference makers for a budget-strapped team that needs to find its improvements internally.
MESA, Ariz. — Maybe more than anyone else in the Cubs’ clubhouse, Albert Almora Jr. was built for and by baseball.
But nothing his father put him through in training from the age of 3, nothing a record number of U.S. national team games across the globe as a teenager and nothing in the majors since he was a rookie in Game 7 of the World Series prepared him for the kind of miserable, underperforming season he had in 2019.
“No. That’s a fact,” he said. “But I’m glad it happened.
“You have to grow from things like that. You have two options. You can fold and let it beat you, or you can learn from it and grow.”
Almora, 25, was emotionally devastated after watching his fouled line drive hit a 2-year-old girl in the head last May in Houston. She suffered serious injuries that she still battles, and Almora has been visibly emotional when faced with questions about it.
But despite a significant drop in his production the rest of the season, he refuses to say it had an impact on a half-season slump that included a brief demotion back to the minors.
“That’s not an excuse,” he said after nine months to consider it.
Instead, the center fielder the Cubs drafted sixth overall in 2012 — Theo Epstein’s first pick as Cubs president — went back to a close circle of friends for baseball support over the winter. And, he went back to basics with his swing.
It’s only spring training, and more than that, it has been only a week of games, but the quieter swing without the conspicuous leg kick has him off to a 5-for-7 start that includes a homer, a double, a walk and five RBI — and it took three games before someone was able to get him out.
“I’ve been happy about how I’m preparing every day,” Almora said. “It’s not about results. It’s about just feeling like I’m competing and my body’s ready to go. Results come and go.”
If the season he went through last year was the worst in his young lifetime of baseball, the winter was his most uncertain. That might have mattered to him, had he paid attention.
From the moment the 2019 season ended, the front office talked openly about a willingness to consider trading anyone off the roster, including — in some cases, especially — members of the young core of hitters who celebrated the rarest of American team championships in 2016.
“I just focused on myself to get ready for this year and do everything I can to be at my best to help this team,” said Almora, who worked to reset himself both mechanically and mentally.
“You hear that phrase a lot in this game — ‘turn the page,’ ” he said. “But it’s hard. You’re constantly failing, and you’re constantly not performing the way you know you can, and you’re letting your guys down offensively and defensively. It was tough.”
Whatever he did to reset his mind and approach, manager David Ross said he has noticed.
“An offseason’s a fresh start,” Ross said. “Things can go one way or the other in an offseason. Albert looks like he’s in a good place. Physically he looks amazing. His mentality, his positivity — I’ve seen it already in camp.”
If the reset and the changes pay off this year, Almora could be one of the biggest difference-makers for a budget-strapped team that needs to find almost all of its improvement internally following a disappointing 84-win season.
After hitting .289 with a .738 OPS his first three seasons and looking like a maturing hitter, Almora statistically was one of the worst hitters in the league last year for his level of playing time (130 games).
He also sank quickly after the foul ball hit the toddler. Almora was on a monthlong streak in which he was hitting .301 with a .533 slugging percentage and .860 OPS until that horrifying moment in Houston.
The rest of the season: .211, .322 slugging and .560 OPS.
“It definitely impacted me, but I’m not going to say that was the reason why I didn’t perform the way I wanted to,” he said.
Either way, it’s a new start for him in 2020.
He’s making no promises about results, but, he said, “I’m in a good mental spot right now.”