As Almora Jr. Takes His Spot in Center, What Have We Learned?

On November 2nd in Cleveland, I watched Albert Almora Jr. pinch run for Kyle Schwarber and tag up from first to second on a long flyball off the bat of Kris Bryant. From my vantage point, and for a brief, exhilarating second, I thought the ball was gone. Many players would likely have drifted off of first, ready to celebrate or run if the ball bounced off the wall. But Almora Jr., a 22-year-old role player seemingly only on the postseason roster for his defensive prowess and baseball instincts, retreated to first for the tag up and then was able to slide into second safely ahead of the tag. This moment, and the one that followed epitomized the role the Cubs fans have gradually come to expect of Almora Jr. He’s a great defender, a guy with great instincts, and, hey, when he hits, that’s just a bonus.

Almora has been in Cubs’ fans consciousness for what seems like a very long time, and for someone so young, we feel very well-acquainted with him. He was the first major draft pick of the Epstein era, sixth-overall in 2012, and the first prospect whose box scores I remember poring over in the early days of the rebuild. So it’s interesting that it is only now that Almora Jr. has finally become the Cubs’ primary centerfielder. The first piece of the rebuild is only truly arriving now, and because of that, it’s easy to feel like he is late, or somehow less essential than Bryant, Rizzo, Schwarber, Russell, and the rest.

This makes sense, of course: It really did take Almora Jr. (who was drafted at 18) a while to reach the big leagues, and there were some very real struggles along the way. But today, about two weeks before his 23rd birthday, I’m wondering how much his potential has really dropped from what the Cubs thought was possible when they drafted him over Mark Appel (and five picks ahead of Addison Russell) in 2012.

We always hear first about Almora’s defense nowadays, but in the wake of the 2012 draft, Jason McLeod described him as someone they saw as a “pretty impactful offensive player,” with the ability to hit for both power and average. He was seen as a legitimate offensive prospect first and foremost—the kicker was that he could also carry centerfield. As another example, here is’s blurb on Almora Jr. from the day of the draft in 2012:

Almora has played for USA Baseball as much as any player in history. He’s played in big situations and shown natural leadership abilities over the years. He’s also got many tools to get excited about. He should be an above-average hitter at the next level, with an ability to drive the ball to all fields. He’ll have above-average power as well and shows it in games now, especially to the pull side. He’s a solid-average runner and knows what to do on the basepaths. Defensively, he’s a plus center fielder with excellent arm strength and range. All of his tools play up because of his plus makeup and work ethic. That combination should have plenty of teams in the first round taking a long look at him.

This report again emphasizes Almora’s power potential, which is perhaps a bit surprising, because he eventually became known as a contact guy as he rose through the Cubs’ system. He tore up Rookie ball in 2012 and then hit .329/.376/.466 in 272 plate appearances in Low-A Kane County in 2013, as a 19-year-old. He was often banged up during that season, but nothing to that point suggested he would be anything less than a good MLB hitter. The power wasn’t there—he only hit three home runs that year—but it wasn’t expected to be yet.

Nick Faleris scouted Almora Jr. for BP in late June 2013. He gave him a 60 future grade for both his hit and power tools, and only a 55 with the glove. Here was the blurb from Faleris:

An advanced talent showing as one of the best in the Midwest League despite playing all of 2013 as a 19-year-old. Projects well as a no. 2 hitter on a first-division team with above-average production in center field and solid value on the basepaths. Some slight concerns relating to health, so a fully healthy 2014 would be nice to see. Chance to jump two levels next year, lining up for a 2015 debut along with a number of other potential impact bats in the system. Type of player any team would dream of having in its system—true first-division profile with good makeup.

Almora’s reputation as a defense-first player was still a long way off from being predominant at this point as well, and the 60-grade power projection might be very surprising in retrospect. This is another reminder that Almora was seen for a long time as an excellent offensive player.

Also mentioned here for the first time are the “other potential impact bats in the system.” Almora finished the 2013 season early, with a hamstring injury, and this occurred at the same time as Javy Baez and Kris Bryant’s prospect-doms were taking off. It’s not as if Almora Jr. became an afterthought at this point, but from an offensive standpoint, he couldn’t compete with the homers that this duo (and, eventually, Soler and Schwarber) were racking up seemingly every night.

And 2014 was a struggle for Almora, particularly once he hit Double-A as a 20-year-old. He put up a .212 TAv and an OBP of only .250. The one offensive trait he was rarely lauded for as a prospect was his approach, and Theo Epstein compared his struggles to those of Starlin Castro in 2014, suggesting that perhaps he was making too much contact and not waiting for pitches that he could drive.

This became the book on Almora while, as a 21- and 22-year-old, he put up okay-but-not-particularly-good numbers in Double-A in 2015 and then again hit for average but not power or on-base (.303/.317/.416) at the beginning of last year in Triple-A Iowa. During this time, all the other “core” members of the Cubs prospect debuted and were at least (with the possible exception of Soler) very good.

Almora Jr. was finally called up to the majors during one of Jorge Soler’s trips to the DL last year, and hit pretty well (.267 TAv) through a small sample of 117 at bats. He was often used as a defensive replacement, or someone who could spell Jason Heyward or Dexter Fowler, but he was certainly not a starter, and it didn’t feel imminent.

But suddenly Dexter Fowler left, the Cubs signed a workable but not exciting semi-replacement/platoon partner for Almora Jr. in Jon Jay, and Almora Jr. just got an Opening Night start on the 2017 Cubs. This comes off a spring in which he hit .318/.324/.636 with four home runs, which is good for a .960 OPS. Spring stats don’t matter much, but the power Almora showed seemed like more than something you’d expect from a player who will hit 5-10 homers in a year, and old reports on his projectable power make its presence somewhat more believable. The on-base approach is still not there, but the average (and the sweet, sweet swing) is, and if Almora Jr. can ever get to near .300 with some pop, the defense he plays in center would put him near an All-Star level in terms of value. Adam Jones comes to mind as a centerfielder who has made an extremely good MLB living despite never walking. And again, Almora Jr. doesn’t turn 23 for two weeks.

Back now to the original question that I asked: What have we learned about Almora Jr. since he was drafted? I’d say not much. We’ve only confirmed the following:

He truly is an excellent defender in centerfield and he truly has great baseball instincts, which makes him a surefire fourth outfielder at worst.

He has excellent contact skills.

He will likely never be a high OBP player.

His eventual power is a question mark.

Almora Jr. feels a little late to the party, but I submit that nearly all the potential the Cubs saw in him in 2012 is still there. The extent to which he develops power in the next few years will likely decide whether he has an average ceiling or an All-Star level ceiling. Almora Jr. is both, somehow, the first and the last member of the “first wave” of the Cubs rebuild, and in time it’s still very possible that he’ll be considered just as essential as the rest of them. And it’s remarkable how well Almora Jr. fits into their 2017 roster, playing the one position that truly needs some more upside.

Heck, if you squint, you could almost convince yourself that was the plan all along.

Lead photo courtesy Joe Camporeale—USA Today Sports

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2 comments on “As Almora Jr. Takes His Spot in Center, What Have We Learned?”

Mind blow. I totally forgot the offensive expectations. (Brett at Bleacher Nation was high in this kid from the chute and expected big numbers).

Great article.

BTW – ” OPB” typo..

Nate Greabe

Thanks, and thanks for catching typo, which is now fixed!

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