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Cubs Prospect Almora Is Tournament-Tested
- Updated: June 8, 2016
Chicago Cubs prospect Albert Almora Jr. joined the Major League club this week, making the young center fielder the fourth first-round Cubs draft pick to play for the NL Central Division leaders this season. The other three: Javier Baez (2011), Kris Bryant (2013), and Kyle Schwarber (2014). The Cubs called up Almora after outfielder Jorge Soler suffered a strained hamstring running out a base hit against the Philadelphia Phillies, landing Soler on the disabled list. In his first career at bat the following night (June 7th), Almora grounded out to Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco while pinch hitting for Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks in the sixth inning.
Almora debuted ahead of schedule as a consequence of Soler’s injury. Though performing well on the Iowa Cubs (PCL, AAA) with a .318 batting average in 54 games, to maximize his playing time the Cubs likely would have preferred to let the top 100 prospect play out his first season in triple A ball, then call him up at September roster expansion. But left fielder Kyle Schwarber’s season-ending knee injury in April and now Soler’s hamstring condition has forced the issue.
If the 22 year-old Almora could use more at-bats in Des Moines, he should have an immediate impact on defense at the Major League level. An aggressive fly chaser, Almora by all accounts has a good arm and a gift for tracking the baseball off the bat. His quickness and keen judgment of fly ball trajectories makes for impressive range, even if he has less than blinding speed.
The Cubs have depth in the outfield to sustain the team through the two outfielder injuries. Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward are the regulars in center and right; infielders Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist can play corner outfield positions; reserve Matt Szczur plays all three outfield spots; and infielder Javier Baez played some center field in spring training. Add Almora, and Manager Joe Maddon has enviable options in center field: Fowler, Heyward, Szczur, and now Almora are all comfortable there.
In the batter’s box, Almora is a high-contact hitter with good gap power. He struck out just 47 times in 451 plate appearances with the Tennessee Smokies (Southern League, AA) last season for a “K” rate slightly above 10 percent. He compiled a .272 batting mark, .327 on-base and .400 slugging percentage. This year he has fanned 29 times in 226 plate appearances (about 12 percent) and has tallied 18 extra base hits, three of them home runs, for a .444 slugging percentage at Iowa.
Both Almora’s contact rate and stellar defense are welcome skills on the Cubs. Though his walk rate is low, the Cubs have a wealth of eagle-eyed batsmen, leading the league in team bases on balls through the first week of June. Almora’s free-swinging approach, if not a model for an entire starting nine, complements his teammates.
A Hialeah, Florida native and product of Mater Academy Charter School, Almora was the Cubs number one pick in the 2012 first year player draft (6th pick overall). The prospect has a baseball pedigree: Albert Almora Sr. played baseball in Cuba and has been young Albert’s mentor in the game since Albert Jr. was four years old, reportedly building a training complex for his son at the Almora’s Florida home.
Almora Jr. owns the distinction of making seven appearances on United States National Baseball Teams (USA Baseball), a USA Baseball record. Almora first entered international tournament play at the tender age of 13, playing and winning team gold in Guatemala in the 13-14 years old program (14U). In 2011, playing in the Pan American Games in Cartagena, Columbia, Almora earned MVP honors in the 18U program, batting 16 for 38 (.421), with 11 RBI, 11 runs, and nine stolen bases in nine games. Cubs teammate Addison Russell hit a grand slam in the gold medal game, a 12-2 defeat of Canada. Last July, then all of 21, Almora appeared on Team USA at the Pan American Games, topping A.J. Hinch‘s six Team USA appearances.
If a 162-game season is a grind, international tournament play is a crucible. Every at-bat, every play counts; players feel the pressure of championship competition. General Managers look for postseason experience among veterans when building their rosters. For a prospect, tournament play is a good surrogate for post-season participation. That Albert Almora Jr. has a record seven USA Baseball stints to his credit will serve him well in The Show.
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