The Double A Smokies are likely to have a very impressive outfield in 2015. And since I just profiled part of that outfield, part time outfielder and part time catcher Kyle Schwarber, in the last Prospects Progress, this seems like a good time to take a look at another likely Smokies outfielder. Next up is center fielder Albert Almora.
Almora hasn’t had the smoothest of starts to his professional baseball career, and as a result he might be one of the rare high ceiling prospects to be generally underrated by his own fan base.
As for Prospects Progress, this is the annual offseason series that focuses on players at all levels of the minors. Each article will take one prospect … maybe a big name you instantly recognize, and maybe a fringe guy you haven’t heard of … and will spend some time looking at his numbers, his risk factors, and how he projects to fit into the Cubs’ future.
Albert Almora , CF
Born: April 16, 1994
Acquired: The Cubs drafted Almora in the first round in 2012.
The Enigmatic Bat
Almora will play in the major leagues. I have very little doubt on that front. If I were to project the Cubs prospects with the highest likelihood of reaching Wrigley Field, Almora would be among the few at the very top of the list. His glove alone should set him up for a nice career as a bench outfielder even if the bat never really shows up.
That bat, though, is what is making Almora such a tough prospect to evaluate. The scouts generally like his offensive potential, and the swing looks pretty good to me both live and on film (even though I’m not a scout). For example, FanGraphs grades his hit tool as a potential 55 and his power at a potential 50. A 55/50 bat is a pretty good bat. And FanGraphs is not alone. MLB Pipeline projects him at 60 hit / 50 power.
Those are some very nice grades for a 20 year old hitter, and, based on those grades, we could be justified in being all kinds of optimistic as to Almora’s future.
Unfortunately, his 2014 season did not live up to those grades. A glance at the numbers (season line of .270/.291/.392) makes it appear that he didn’t hit for average or for power, and he drew an absurdly small number of walks. It isn’t hard to see why a lot of fans are down on Almora and many already view him just another bust.
I am not one of those people. When we dig into the numbers, I think Almora had a better than 2014 that it appeared, and what’s more I strongly suspect that he has a good chance of breaking out in a big way in 2015.
Can He Hit?
Almora got off to a very slow start in the Florida State League in 2014, perhaps as he adjusted to approach changes suggested by the Cubs, but when he started to hit, he made up for the lost time in a hurry. He left the league with a slugging percentage of .406; that’s good for 20th in the league among qualifiers. Seen in that light, in the context of the rest of the Florida State League, his power wasn’t all that lacking in the first part of last season. He didn’t show the type of exorbitant power that some other Cubs prospects are known for, but then he was never billed as having such power. That kind of power is fairly unusual (in most other farm systems) anyway.
His .283 average, if you were wondering, finished 13th in the league among qualifiers.
And while it is true that his FSL walk rate was just 3.1% (that’s 12 walks if you’re counting), his strikeout rate was also an impressively low 11.9%. Given that recent studies strongly suggest that High A strikeout rates are a stronger indicator of future career success than High A walk rates, the impact of that low strikeout rate isn’t something that we should understate.
But we shouldn’t ignore that low walk rate, either.
At Double A Tennessee in the later part of the season, Almora posted a line of just .234/.250/.355 with a walk rate of only 1.4% and a career high (but still very good) strikeout rate of 16%. However, Almora’s BABIP at Tennessee was just .267. Given that his next worst BABIP is .305, that looks low to me. It looks low to Steamer as well; that projection system slots Almora for a BABIP of .271 if he were to reach the majors in 2015.
I also think Almora’s Tennessee ISO of .121 is on the low side. After all, he managed an ISO of .123 in the hitter-unfriendly Florida State League. The Southern League is generally more forgiving in the power department, so it isn’t unreasonable to think that Almora will improve on that ISO when he returns to Tennessee to start 2015.
Long term, Almora projects as a low strikeout hitter who will put a ton of balls in play, hits for a reasonably high average, moderate power, and will possess just enough speed to keep defenses honest without ever really being a weapon on the base paths. That may not sound like much, particularly when we factor in continued depressed walk totals, but if we combine that projection with his fantastic center field defense, we have the ingredients for roughly a 4 WAR player in the majors.
In fact, if we take his 2015 Steamer projection of .241/.269/.357 and run it through the WAR Calculator to factor in defense and base running, Almora projects as roughly a 2 WAR player today. An MLB projected WAR of 2.0 after just 36 Double A games at the age of 20 isn’t too shabby.
His stolen base totals are low (just 16 in his professional career), and that I think drives the perception that he is slow. He really isn’t. His scouting grades for running are in the 50 to 55 range, for example, and his base running from what I have seen has been consistent with that. I suspect as he grows more familiar with pitchers and their pick off moves that he may get somewhat more aggressive with the steals, but it will likely be a gradual adjustment. I think he has the tools be in the 15 to 20 steals a year category, but I don’t think he’ll take many chances in that department.
On the whole, Almora doesn’t offer the offensive upside of some of the Cubs more power-oriented prospects, but he should have a bat that is capable of holding down a major league starting job and that could be an asset in the lower part of the batting order. Combine that with his glove, though, and Almora has the makings of a valuable player.
Yes, The Glove Is That Good
The most positive things you have read about Almora’s defense are probably underselling him a little. He isn’t the fastest outfielder around, although he is more than fast enough to handle center field in virtually any ballpark. But he easily makes up for any missing speed with his route judgement and timing. While other outfielders may have to use their speed to adjust to the ball, Almora’s routes are generally pretty clean as soon as he starts running.
His arm is strong enough for center, and his throws are generally accurate and to the right part of the diamond. He won’t air mail a ball over the catcher’s head from the warning track in center … but that’s a good thing. He’s a smart player, and you will likely have to watch a lot of plays before you catch him making a mental error on defense.
Without the advanced defensive metrics that are only calculated at the major league level it is hard to say just what his effective range is, but after watching several of his Double A games, I have yet to see him fail to get a ball in the gaps that I felt a better center fielder could have realistically reached. If a play is there to be made, there is a pretty good chance Almora will make it. It is easy to see why scouts love his glove and why they rate his defense as a center fielder in the elite 70+ range.
I do think Almora will return to Double A to start the 2015 season, but I’m not sure he stays there much more than two or three months. If he starts consistently hitting in Tennessee, there is no reason for the Cubs to hold him back from Iowa. I don’t think a 2015 promotion to Wrigley is in the cards in any scenario except some fairly serious injuries in the majors, but he should be a name to watch when spring training roles around in 2016.
Almora is one prospect that often comes up when Cubs fans speculate about trades, and I have no doubt that other teams will be asking about him. It is worth remembering, though, that a Gold Glove caliber center fielder can be a tremendous asset to a team that has a more limited defensive player, a slugging former third baseman perhaps, in left. Finding a major league player with defense on par with Almora’s is possible, but it may not be easy. If the Cubs value Almora primarily for that glove, I doubt he is dealt any time soon.
I am not sold on Almora having an All-Star future, but I do think he has a very good chance to break out in 2015, move back up the prospect charts, and eventually become one of those players that is loved by fans for his outfield defense and by sabermetricians for his low strikeout totals.