Prospects Progress: Albert Almora

albert almora kane countyAlbert Almora might be the toughest player to project into 2014. There is a good case to be made for starting him at any of three different levels in the farm system, and there is good reason to suspect that he’ll have little trouble hitting at any of those levels. With the exception of one small issue, his stat line is as pristine as any in the organization.

Figuring out when he might reach the majors is also tricky.

More on those projections after this disclaimer. The goal here is not to re-rank the prospects (that comes next year) or to assess the strengths and weaknesses of farm as a whole (that also comes next year). The goal for this series is to take each prospect individually, study the progress made so far, and see what we can learn about the future for that player.

As good as Almora’s stat line is, don’t forgot that his best tool is probably his defense. He was praised as providing Gold Glove calibre defense in center field since he was drafted, and so far we have no reason to doubt that.

Albert Almora, OF
Born: April 16, 1994
Acquired: He was the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft, but he will probably always be known as the first pick of the Theo Epstein era in Chicago.

Season Summary

Similar to what we saw from Jorge Soler, Almora had a very promising 2013 season that was cut short by injury. Had he stayed healthy, I strongly suspect he would have finished the season in Daytona. As it was he had 272 plate appearances over 61 game for Low-A Kane County in which he hit .329/.376/.466 with a walk rate of 6.3%, a strikeout rate of just 11.0%, and wOBA and wRC+ values of .383 and 137 respectively.

We have seen better overall numbers, but not very often. The .376 OBP and 11% strikeout rate in particular strongly suggest that Almora has a very advanced understanding of the strike zone. Numbers in that range often accompany an excellent batting eye and the ability to make solid, consistent contact.

However, if there is a red flag on Almora, and I’m not sure there really is one, it may be currently masked by the same batting eye and contact abilities. Almora’s 6.3% walk rate with Kane County this year was a career high (admittedly, his career has been quite short). A 6.3% walk rate in Low A is not much to write home about, but in this case I’m not sure we really need to be concerned. His mediocre base on ball numbers were accompanied by a very good .376 OBP. In other words, even though he wasn’t walking a ton, he was hitting so much he still got on base at a very good clip. That is good, but it does not tell us a lot about his patience.

A free swinger who is just too good for his level will put up a line similar to Almora’s in the low levels, but start to struggle against tougher competition. On the other hand, a very good hitter with normal or better patience who is having no problem against lower level pitching will hit his way out of enough at bats that the walk rate could be artificially deflated. When facing more advanced pitching that is more skilled at working off the edges of the plate, he may show the capacity to lay off those pitches. After all, the point of patience at the plate isn’t necessarily to draw a walk, it is to selectively choose the right pitch or pitches at which to swing.

So which is Almora, the free swinger or the patient hitter? Right now we just do not have the numbers to tell us with much confidence. The scouts believe he has all the tools to be an elite hitter in all aspects of the craft, but tools are not the same as production. For that reason, we will need to keep an eye on Almora’s walk rates as he moves up the system. I don’t really expect there to be a problem long term, but I’ll be watching anyway.

There is another line, albeit a small sample one, that we should look at for Almora. In order to make up some of the at bats he lost due to injury, the Cubs sent Almora down to the prospect-heavy Arizona Fall League in October and November. Even though he was one of the youngest players in the league and was playing against pitchers that sometimes had years more experience than he did, Almora still put up some very good numbers in the desert.

Through 21 games and 79 plate appearances he posted a line of .307/.342/.480 with a walk rate of 5.1% and a strikeout rate of 11.4%. Those numbers were good for a wOBA of .374 and a wRC+ of 123.

Unfortunately, the sample size is too small to really draw any conclusions here. The decline in AVG, OBP, and BB% could be a cause for concern in some corners, but more likely are just the result of a player getting back into the game after a long layoff, and doing so against some of the best pitching he has ever seen. The slight increase in SLG is probably somewhat the result of playing in Arizona, but it also suggests that Almora was still able to make solid and consistent contact. Beyond that I don’t think we can learn anything definitive, but we would be justified in coming away from his AFL stint with a general feeling of optimism as we head into 2014.

Where Does He Go?

I see three possible places where Almora could start 2014.

One option would be a return to Kane County. I don’t think he has anything left to prove there, but it could be a good place for him to shake off any rust from his swing, make any final tuneups necessary from his injury-reduced season, and generally prepare to accelerate up the system. If he does head to Kane County, I doubt he stays there for long. Then again, I think this is the least likely of the three.

The second choice, and probably the most likely, would be Daytona. After playing well in the Midwest League last season, Daytona would be the next natural progression for him. If there were any fears of a recurring injury (doubtful), playing in the warmer weather of Florida from Opening Day could be a small benefit as well. While the better pitching of the Florida State League would be a tougher challenge for Almora, I think his peripherals hold up and he hits his way through the league with little difficulty. If he does go to Daytona, I suspect he’ll be promoted in mid-summer.

Prior to his AFL trip, this last option would have been an extreme long shot, but now I think it might be on the table. Double A. Yes, it would be a huge jump to go from Low-A to Double-A with nothing but a rehab assignment and a trip to the AFL along the way, but his limited results in Arizona hint that he might be able to handle Double A level pitching right now. If the scouts and trainers agree with that assessment in Spring Training, starting Almora in Double A starts to make sense.

For one thing, starting in Tennessee would allow Almora to spend the entire season in one place working with one set of coaches and trainers. That could be a nice added bonus considering that Almora will be entering this season with a grand total of 94 professional games under his belt. If he proves he can handle Double A, the Cubs would then be in a position to seriously consider opening 2015 with Almora on the major league roster. If he struggles, then Daytona is just a few hours away.

As I said, I think Daytona is the most likely destination for Almora when he leaves Arizona in the spring, but I would not be opposed to an aggressive promotion path in his case. I can’t say that about every prospect, but between the reports of Almora’s personality and work ethic and the numbers he has produced thus far, including the Arizona Fall League, I suspect he could handle it.

Prognosis

Almora has a floor that compares well to any of the Cubs Big Four, including Soler. His offensive ceiling is a little harder to peg, but I think he should produce at an above average rate for center field. Combine that with his defense, which draws rave reviews from everyone who sees it, and the Cubs could have a potential star in the making. If the OBP stays high enough (keep an eye on that BB%) he should be a candidate to bat at the very top of the order. If not, his bat should fit just fine around the seventh slot.

There is risk with Almora, as with any prospect, but most of the major risk areas don’t apply here. I will be watching closely to see how he adjusts his approach when faced with tougher pitching, but that is just about the only potential weakness to show up so far.

When he was drafted there was speculation in many corners that he would be the first high school player from that draft to reach the majors, and some went so far as to suggest that he would only need two years in the minors. He lost half a year to injury in 2013, but if he can stay healthy I would not be surprised if he meets that two year pace. I think this is a guy that Cub fans will start watching sooner than a lot of them expect, and could continue to enjoy watching for a very long time.

Picture via Kane County Facebook Page

Luke Blaize is the Minor League Editor at Bleacher Nation. He can be found on Twitter as ltblaize.

43 responses to “Prospects Progress: Albert Almora”

  1. Dylan

    Did he come from the future? You know, since he’s from 2994.

    1. Brett

      And yes. He did.

      1. hansman

        That means that he knows the future and if he allowed himself to be drafted by the Cubs…

  2. Blackhawks1963

    Almora is my favorite prospect in the system. I love his potential. Definitely has the potential to become a solid 15 year major league contributor.

    1. Cheese Chad

      I couldn’t agree any more. His attitude and demeanor are extremely impressive too. I think he’s got all the tools to be productive and a leader. When he gets the call is when the Cubs start to contend in my opinion.

    2. Isaac

      ….It’s obviously a ridiculous stretch, but my favorite comparison from a “make-up” standpoint is Jeter. While the career will be nearly impossible to match, I can see him being that kind of presence for us.

  3. V23

    I can’t wait to see what Almora develops into. He has a great story, and seems to play the game the right way at a very young age.
    However, looking at his stat line, he doesn’t seem like a stolen base guy or a power guy.
    Are there thoughts that he can develop to a 20 homer guy? At 19, his body has a lot more developing.

    Who are scouts saying he could project out to?

    1. cub-hub

      Torii Hunter would be a comp. But he’ll be lucky as he’ll to reach Hunters level.

    2. nick5253

      What do you think of a Joe Mauer comp? An up the middle player with outstanding plate discipline and a lot of doubles power. Their early stats are similar. I’d take that in a heartbeat!!

      1. Voice of Reason

        Joe Mauer? No thanks! The dude couldn’t stay healthy.

        In 9 full big league seasons Mauer played in over 140 games TWICE and he never played in more than 147 games in any season.

        No question Mauer could hit, but he couldn’t stay healthy.

        1. nick5253

          Almora not being a catcher should help there – I would say most of his injuries were related to the wear and tear of being a catcher.

          1. Cheese Chad

            I think health shouldn’t play a part in comparing players. He probably meant more in terms of talent and production at this point.

        2. woody

          Take into account that he was a catcher. He’s moving to first base this season.

  4. cub-hub

    I was extremely lower on Amora then the other 3, but he has started to impress me a little. I still think he is the least talented of the big 4, and doesn’t have one tool other than defense that stands out as elite. But if Almora is your 4 or 5 best prospect, depending on where people rank Edwards, then you are looking good in the minors. I actually think the Cubs should challenge him and start him at Tennessee. I think he can handle it defensively and be at worse an average player offensively. Even if he is below average, his defense will make up for it.

    1. Noah_I

      His contact ability has been elite so far. I have Almora as the third best prospect in the system, above Soler. I have less concerns about Almora being at least a league average regular, due to the elite defense, than I do with Soler, who is confined to an OF corner.

  5. Diehardthefirst

    Given his defense makes team strong up middle I would like to see him start most games in Spring training to see if he can put up decent numbers

  6. On The Farm

    Nice write up. Luke are you planning a trip to Tennessee again? It would be nice if you could see Almora, Soler, Johnson, Black, and Edwards first hand give us your report.

    1. AA Correspondant

      It’s going to be a fun year looking at the prospects in AA this season. Can’t wait.

  7. DCF

    Stupid question, but what are the actual odds that a guy like him will become a regular MLB starter. 50%? Are there any useful statistics about this?

    1. terencemann

      It’s hard to tell now due to how low he is in the Cubs’ system but there’s a high correlation between players who rank in the top 20 prospects in baseball in their last season on BA’s top 100 becoming successful major league players. That’s where he’s headed if he continues on this path.

  8. aaronb

    Almora is a prospect that gives causes a bit of concern for me. His walk rate ended up being just short of acceptable. However that walk rate was absolutely atrocious from the day he was drafted until the last month of last season.

    So either he is a hacker that will get exposed as he faces better competition….or he turned a corner August of 2013.

    I’ll reserve judgement…but concerns still persists.

    1. Noah_I

      I don’t know, I find it hard to call someone with an 11% K rate a hacker. He might be a see ball/hit ball type, but that’s a bit different in my book. It’s a question of if he’s expanding the zone to make contact, or if his contact ability within the zone is just that good.

      It’s something to keep an eye on as he progresses and faces pitchers who should be able to challenge him more, but I wouldn’t call it a concern at this point.

      1. aaronb

        I don’t mind K rates all that much personally. Josh Vitters and Neifi Perez are a couple of guys who also never put up high K rates. They also never really grasped the strike zone.

        Instead they attacked the first decent pitch early in the count.

        And that is sort of my fear with Almora. (I wanted us to draft Appel at the time, so it could be a bit of subconscious bias as well)

        I hope the kid turns out great. Just a couple of red flags give me pause. The lack of a plus tool, non projectable power, non top line speed and a large frame for a Center fielder also give me some lesser pause.

        If he puts on weight and loses a step, is he a plus in a corner outfield spot?

        1. Mike Taylor

          If your skill set is so far advanced beyond your competition, it’s a smorgasbord of fat pitches. You’re supposed to ignore them to get your walk rate up? LOL.

    2. woody

      If he was a hacker it would show in his strikeout percentage which is not excessive.

  9. itzscott

    For a player that’s lost so much playing time to injury, I’d be leery of sending him to the FSL and risk losing even more playing time to rainouts.

    1. Noah_I

      The rain in the FSL is much more of a problem in August than any other time of the season, as tropical storm season hits. This is especially true considering that the MWL has some really terrible weather (cold and a lot of rain) in April and May. Early in the season, the weather in the FSL is about as good as anywhere in professional baseball.

  10. ssckelley

    I have a hard time seeing Almora go back to Kane County, I am hoping to see Shawon Dunston take the KC center field position. Daytona seems to be the most likely destination but a jump to Tennessee would be interesting. Like you said he was able to, what amounts to, AA pitching in the AFL.

    1. aaronb

      Start in Daytona, move to Tennessee if he shows he can handle it come July/August.

  11. Cubsin

    I’d be surprised and somewhat encouraged if Almora started 2014 in AA, but I’d be shocked if he were assigned to Kane County again. I don’t think the Cubs’ front office would jump him to AA unless they already have him penciled into the 2015 Opening Day lineup.

  12. David

    Almora= Sandberg but with only 1/2 of his power.

    1. aaronb

      Sandberg had a gold glove at a premium defensive position, and had twice the walk rate. Derrick May looks like a closer Cubs comp up to this point.

      Or maybe early career Brian McRae?

  13. Voice of Reason

    I like Almora, but he doesn’t do anything that really excites me! I’m not sold on his size. I know he’s just 20 and he can fill out, but 6’2″ and 180 isn’t good UNLESS he was stealing 40 bases or hitting the long ball right now.

    Jeff Cirillo had a solid bat at 3B and would hit for average, BUT he didn’t hit home runs and he didn’t steal bases. That’s not saying that Almora hitting .310 and hitting 10 home runs and stealing 10 bases with a .340 OBP and above average defense is not acceptable. I just tend to get more excited about a player who has power potential or the potential to swipe 40 bases.

    My fear is that he is a defensive replacement. Doug Dascenzo anyone?

  14. DarthHater

    That red and blue Cubs logo looks goofy on those green and black Kane County uniforms.

    1. Mike Taylor

      He kind of looks like Theriot in that picture. :(

  15. Senor Cub

    Watched Almora in Kane County a few times last year. Nothing really stood out that made you “ooh and ahhh”. He has a lot to prove still so my preference would be Daytona. Also, his frame looks awful small!

  16. Xruben31

    I called him skipping high A back last spring/summer and you guys laughed at me.

  17. DarthHater

    Here is John Arguello’s synopsis of Sickels’ top 20 Cubs Prospects List: http://www.chicagonow.com/cubs-den/2014/01/john-sickels-releases-top-20-cubs-prospects-list/

    1. DarthHater

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