Having started just once since May 24, Albert Almora Jr. got the call in center field last night, and summarily answered with a two-hit night, including a rocket homer into the teeth of the wind.
I don’t think you’re going to find that the Chicago Cubs have lost faith in Albert Almora, Jr.
Instead, if you’re looking to solve the grand mystery of why Almora’s playing time has been dramatically reduced lately, you really don’t have to dig too deeply: (1) Ian Happ arrived, took off, and naturally slotted in for starts in center field when you considered the rest of the roster; and (2) Almora’s production against righties this year has been abysmal (.227/.261/.318).
Whatever ultimately happens with Happ, I think Almora will improve against righties organically (his 15.7% K rate is not bad, and he’s made as much hard contact against righties as lefties this year (just more soft contact, too, and far too much on the ground)). But we all have to remember that the Cubs are, at all times, working dual tracks with their young players: they want to win as many big league ballgames as possible, while also doing what’s best for each individual player’s development.
In Almora’s case, the final step necessary to unlock his offensive potential is improving his selective aggression. In other words, focusing early in counts on only those pitches that he can really drive in the air.
As we’ve seen before with players who have so much natural contact ability, as the pitching gets better and better (and the defenses, too), simply being able to put a decent swing on most pitches is not enough to have success. It’s better to put a few great swings on some pitches, while missing or taking others – even if they’re strikes – entirely.
The whole thing is easier said than done, as the Cubs saw with Starlin Castro; who, by the way, is hitting more fly balls this year than he ever has, is making more hard contact than he ever has, and – not coincidentally – is posting a career-best 126 wRC+. Castro is now 27 years old and has been developing at the big league level for more than half a decade.
Almora is just 23, and got his first taste of The Show last year.
It’s entirely possible that Almora’s usage lately is not solely about Happ’s emergence or Almora’s struggles against righties, and could instead be at least partly about his own development. I won’t speculate on the finer points of precisely how at this point, but I do think it’s fair to guess that Almora would probably be hitting very well at AAA were he there right now. And maybe that wouldn’t do him much good.
That is all to say, given that the Cubs are sensitive to player development, and given that they still have long-term faith in Almora, I am fine with how he’s been used so far this year.
As for his part, Almora admits that of course he’d want to be playing more often.
“I’m a competitor and I want to play, but it’s not about me,” Almora told Cubs.com after last night’s win. “It’s about the Chicago Cubs and winning another World Series. I’m happy to be here and happy to help in whatever way I can. Tonight, they gave me an opportunity and I’m glad I helped out.”
As long as he keeps fulfilling his role and working on development, the opportunities will keep coming, one way or another. Hey, he’s starting again tonight.
And here’s that rocket homer, if you missed it:
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) June 6, 2017