Brimming With Confidence, Almora Jr. Awaits Wrigley Return

When the Cubs bring Albert Almora Jr. back to the major leagues, he’ll be ready to help out in whatever way he can. The 22-year-old Almora was first called up to the big leagues earlier this season when Jorge Soler had to go on the disabled list, making his debut just a week into June. The outfield prospect had been hitting .318/.335/.444 at Triple-A Iowa in 226 plate appearances and the organization felt like the time was right to get him a taste of the big leagues. But the team also lost Dexter Fowler to injury just a few weeks later, forcing the Cubs to rely on the young Almora more than they had hoped they would have to this season.

Almora would hit .265/.291/.422 with two home runs in 86 plate appearances in Chicago, compiling a 0.4 WARP in just 34 appearances as a part-time player. With the return of Fowler, Almora was sent back to Triple-A—where he’s continued to rake against minor league pitching. In 59 plate appearances, Almora is hitting .333/.339/.456. The patience at the plate isn’t where you’d like it to be, with just one walk since returning to Des Moines, but his time in Chicago had a very positive effect on his confidence.

“(It was) awesome. Can’t really even put it into words,” said Almora in an exclusive interview with BP this week. “I learned so much, that’s the biggest thing for me. I gained so much experience there. Just came back here and keep working hard.

“I’m a confident player, and they made me feel right at home right away. That was a great thing as well. It’s just, go out and play the same game. There’s just a little more people there.”

That confidence, mixed with seeing that he can be successful at the highest level of competition, has played into his success even after returning to Triple-A.

“To be honest, I just came back and played. Like you said, it’s my confidence, my confidence has always been there. Down here at the beginning of the year and when I go up there, same thing. So when I came down I just played.”

The Cubs locker room is filled with young guys, many of which are already proven, major league players—and not much older than Almora. That has helped build a clubhouse chemistry that is legendarily close-knit, with older guys like David Ross meshing with the young, less established players on the roster. Almora experienced that first-hand, and when asked if anyone really helped him adjust to life on the biggest stage, he couldn’t offer up just one name.

“I’d be lying to you if I said there was only one guy,” he said. “I mean, it goes from pitchers, to Jake (Arrieta), to Rossy, to Miggy (Miguel Montero) and Dex, and I could go on and on. KB (Kris Bryant). Even (Matt) Szczur to be honest with you, helping me with what I had to do coming off the bench. Just a bunch of guys there.”

Coming off the bench is something that Almora never really had to do before in his career, but given the chance to play in Major League Baseball and help a team with World Series aspirations, the young man had no issues doing whatever was asked of him.

“It was definitely something different in my career, coming off the bench at times. I’m usually always, in the minor leagues, in the starting lineup all the time. You know, I learned about myself there as well, what I had to do to get ready for those moments in the sixth or seventh inning. Whatever they asked of me.”

Going into September, with the likelihood of returning to Chicago when rosters expand being high, Almora has realistic expectations of the kind of playing time that’ll be available, given the Cubs’ crowded roster. But it doesn’t really faze Almora, who just wants a chance to keep playing baseball and helping the team win.

“I mean, I just feel like I can help the team with whatever they need,” he said. “Baserunning, defensively, offensively, it’s whatever they need me to do I’ll be there to do it. I’m just going out to control what I can control, and that’s playing baseball and playing really hard every game.

“It’s simple for me. It may sound like I’m giving the same answer over and over, but that’s just the way I am. I go home at night, and I’m thinking the next day what am I going to do to help the team win? That’s just the way I am, that’s the way I’m going to be.”

There’s a chance that Almora’s role with the Cubs could become greater heading into 2017, with Fowler likely to become a free agent in the offseason. The Cubs haven’t given any indication whether he can expect a full-time job in the big leagues next season, but expect Almora to be ready for whatever happens.

“I mean, I don’t know,” said Almora. “It’s hard to tell, like I said I can’t control that. I’m here to help the team win. If they think that I can be the guy to help them win every day then I’m ready for that challenge.”

It’s been a long journey for the first-round pick from the 2012 amateur draft, and like with all prospects there were some doubts along the way. Would he walk enough? Would he develop enough power? Might he end up just a defense-first, fourth outfielder? Some of those questions still have yet to be answered, but what we do know about Almora so far is very good. It’s a special mix for a player as talented and self-assured as he to also have such a positive attitude.

And the Cubs clearly love that about him. Given the opportunity to view him directly under the microscope at Wrigley Field, did the organization give Almora anything to work on to help him earn his way back to the big leagues?

“Nope, just keep doing what I’m doing. Just keep playing baseball,” said Almora.

You can bet that he will.

Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.

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