Albert Almora Jr. has never had an iron grip on a starting job with the Cubs. Oh, he was wonderful in the first half last season, hitting .319 and starting 59 games, but even then, it didn’t feel as if he had the go-ahead to drop an anchor in center field.
His numbers started to decline, and given manager Joe Maddon’s love of mixing and matching lineups, Almora watched his playing time shrink. He hit .232 in the second half, started 35 games and had 117 fewer plate appearances than he did in the first half.
The thought process of those of us in the Almora-for-center-field camp, if not the Almora-for-mayor camp, went something like this last season: Quit messing around, leave the talented kid out there every day and let’s see what he can do over an entire season. Also, if you think Ian Happ is better than Almora, it might be time for you to stop drinking.
The Cubs demoted Happ to Class AAA Iowa on Saturday, meaning that the center-field job should be Almora’s to lose. But it’s still tenuous. Nothing is given with these Cubs. The club has put an extra emphasis on performance and results this season, thanks to the front office’s belief that some players had lost their edge in 2018. If a player is looking for entitlement, he’ll have to look elsewhere, perhaps the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The Cubs should make an exception with Almora.
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They’re at their best defensively when he’s in center field. Maddon has mentioned Jason Heyward as another possibility in center, but he’s a Gold Glove right fielder. Moving him to center will hurt the club defensively, especially if it means putting the locomotion-challenged Ben Zobrist in right. If you’ve forgotten some of Almora’s diving catches and encounters with the center-field wall last season, I’d suggest a refresher course on YouTube.
As the season went along, opponents started to figure him out as a hitter, and he, in turn, had trouble adjusting. He’s still learning, and he should be allowed to learn as an everyday player. He turns 25 on April 16. For those of us who believe we see greatness when we’re looking at Almora, the hope is that the Cubs won’t be so quick to make a change if he’s struggling this year. The belief is that, with more at-bats, he’ll figure out this whole hitting thing.
The fielding thing? He has Gold Glove ability, enough that it should override whatever troubles he might be having at the plate. If the Cubs let him fight his way through that, imagine what he’ll be like when he comes out on the other side. He doesn’t need help with his confidence, but think about how good he might be if he didn’t have to worry about being out of the lineup at the first hint of a slump.
One thing about Almora: He’s not going to slump defensively. That’s no small thing.
The Cubs too often have given the benefit of the doubt to their highly rated young players, emphasizing potential over production. Theo Epstein has bristled at this characterization, and I’m not sure why. It clearly has happened. Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell are good examples of players whom the Cubs have given favored-nation status when their performances didn’t always merit it.
Almora hasn’t gotten that same treatment. There has been resistance to committing fully to him, though probably for strategic reasons. When Maddon has wanted more left-handed hitters in the lineup, Almora, a righty, often has been one of the victims.
One thing we’ve all learned about Maddon is that he’s going to do it his way, no matter what. You can give him all the reasons that the team mime should wear horizontal stripes, but if he thinks the stripes should be vertical, they’re going to be vertical. And if he thinks having Zobrist’s bat in the lineup necessitates a seat on the bench for Almora, that’s how it’s going to be.
But it sure would be fun to see what Almora could do with a full season of at-bats. There might be something special here. If he gets off to another hot start, he’s going to make it very hard for Maddon to include him in his card-shuffling routine. And it’s going to make the Cubs a better team all around.
Last year, Happ was expected to give the Cubs left-handed power. It didn’t happen. When he struggled in spring training this year, their patience ran out. As it should have.
It’s Almora’s job, for now. Grab it and run so far that they can’t take it from you, Albert.