It took three batters.
The first two had reached base, putting the Cubs in a precarious first inning situation. The third, Freddy Galvis, floated a fly ball into shallow left center field. Within moments, there were two outs, the threat was abated, and the Cubs would go on to win 8-1 over the Phillies back in early June.
Those two outs came by way of the glove and the arm of Albert Almora Jr., the much-celebrated Cubs prospect, who had just arrived to the big leagues and immediately showed – within three batters – why he’d gotten so much hype for his defense:
With good speed coming down the line, and a fly ball that wasn’t hit directly at anyone, that’s a tougher play than Almora made it look. He set himself up perfectly, with plenty of time, and then uncorked a 91mph throw. Pat Hughes said it well in the call there: Odubel Herrera seemed surprised that the ball was there waiting for him when he arrived at home plate. Surely he was thinking, “But … I’m fast, and that ball should have been enough to score me. What happened?”
Almora would go on to contribute periodically throughout the season, and was so impactful on defense that he was put on the playoff roster. There, in Game Three of the NLDS, he made what would probably be remembered as the catch of the postseason if the Cubs had gone on to win the game:
Such an underrated game, that was. Yes, I know I sound like Yoda.
You remember the game and the situation, right? The Cubs had a lead in the 8th inning when Conor Gillespie caught up to an Aroldis Chapman for a lead-losing triple. Kris Bryant then went deep in the 9th inning to tie the game back up. Then, the Giants threatened to walk off in the bottom of the 9th, but Almora made that fantastic catch to force extra innings. The Cubs would go on to lose in 13 innings. Truly, it was an incredible game (and, hey, because the Cubs lost, it set up the even more incredible Game Four 9th inning win).
The Almora catch, which was something of a defensive bookend for his season, together with the play against the Phillies, was emblematic of just how impactful Almora can be on defense (even when playing a corner outfield spot, which he was in each of those plays). In 237.0 outfield innings in MLB last year, Almora posted a 23.7 UZR/150, and had 3 DRS. The sample is too small to offer any meaning at this point, but it does match the story the eyes told us.
Actually, strike that. I’m not sure it does. Because when I watch Albert Almora Jr. play defense, my eyes tell me that this is one of the most special defensive outfielders I’ve ever seen play. I doubt the numbers can yet demonstrate that.
It remains to be seen just how Almora’s season will begin in 2017. He is expected, for now, to share time in center field with Jon Jay, and Almora could also see periodic time in the corners, perhaps late in games. It’s also plausible that he could see some time back at AAA this year, where he has taken only 336 plate appearances in his career. The bat will need to continue to come along if Almora is to become a starter, but it will not have to be a well-above-average bat for Almora to be, overall, a valuable starter.
There are so many players to be excited to follow in 2017, but Almora should be right up there.