Can Albert Almora Jr. turn 2018 second-half struggles into big 2019 season?
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MESA, Ariz. — Albert Almora Jr. is done talking about sitting against right-handers or allegedly not being able to hit them.
“It’s redundant. I don’t like it,” the Cubs center fielder said. “I’m playing baseball. I’m facing opponents, and that’s it. In general, I don’t want to talk about that anymore. It’s not something I’m going to limit myself to.”
OK, then let’s talk about this: What happened to the Almora who was third in the league in hitting at the All-Star break last year and looked like he could be on the verge of ending the platoon question altogether.
“I think it was all mental,” he said. “I just wanted to do more. The first half I did really well, but I still wanted to do more than that. It’s tough. As a competitor, I didn’t feel like that was enough.”
With Twitter screaming for manager Joe Maddon to play the exceptional fielder every day, Almora was hitting .319 with a .357 on-base percentage and .795 OPS at the break.
Only Scooter Gennett (.326) and Nick Markakis (.323) were ranked ahead of him in the batting race.
Maddon was leading him off regularly against lefties and starting to play him more often lower in the lineup against righties.
After the break, Almora hit .232 with a .546 OPS and saw his playing time steadily decline.
“I think I just let my emotions get to me a little bit, and that played into the physical aspect,” Almora said Tuesday, the day after he led off a game against the Reds with a homer and later made a spectacular running, wall-crashing catch in the right-center gap.
“It was a great learning curve, man,” Almora said of a “roller-coaster” 2018 season that included career highs of 152 games (94 starts) and 479 plate appearances.
Maddon has made it abundantly clear this spring that his playing-time calculus hasn’t changed for a mostly unchanged roster that still has a lot of young, developing players. And that means continued platooning for Almora, at least as the season gets started.
“There’s only so many positions on a nightly basis to be played, and you’re trying to match them up properly but then make sure guys are getting their time out there,” Maddon said.
And Almora has made it abundantly clear that he’s ready for 700 at-bats — “been ready for that since I was 4 years old” — but that he also gets the Cubs’ lineup math.
“Joe’s got a hard job to do with a bunch of talent that we have,” Almora said. “It’s a good problem to have. I’m going to do whatever I can to help the team when my name is called.”
And keep it simple again, like he did during the first half of last season — when he said he had fun and wasn’t thinking about anything but his approach.
“It’s just take each day as a new day and not worry about what’s going on, or what’s on TV, or numbers or stuff like that,” Almora said. “Just go out and try to win ballgames. That makes it a lot of fun for me. I think that’s going to help myself, as well.”