Is a Larger Role in the Cards for Albert Almora Jr.?

Before the season began, one would have hoped that what we would’ve heard more about Albert Almora Jr. than whether he flipped off Donald Trump during the Cubs’ White House visit or not. But as the end of July approaches, that’s where we stand with the young centerfielder, as his impact has been relatively minimal. It’s not necessarily for lack of trying, but for lack of opportunity, as Almora’s starts have been stifled due to a variety of factors.

The sample size, small as it may be, actually looks pretty good, though. Does that mean that the Cubs should explore a larger role for Almora moving forward? Or is it more of a matter of Joe Maddon putting him in the spots where he will succeed, with the overall statistical production being the result? One would imagine that if it’s the latter, it’ll eventually lead to something larger for Almora Jr. in terms of playing time, but such a concept has yet to materialize into any consistent appearances for the 23-year-old.

Almora Jr.’s numbers on the season actually look better than one might expect, in general. At the very least, he’s been average (which considering his defensive upside, was about what we’d hoped for at the beginning of the year). He’s maintaining a .280 average and getting on base at a rate of .344, along with a TAv of .245, with the latter figure portraying him as a just below average hitter. Along with that, FanGraphs has him at a wRC+ of 98, which puts him at just about average, if not just a notch below. The power hasn’t quite been there, with an ISO of only .126.

Of course, it’s important to note that much of his production is buoyed by his production against lefties. He’s hitting .368 against left-handed pitching (68 PA), as opposed to just .237 against righties (125 PA). With that in mind, it’s difficult to rationalize playing him outside of against southpaws and as a late-inning defensive substitute. However, there are a couple of trends that could lend themselves to a bit more optimism surrounding Almora Jr.’s play on the offensive side of things.

One of the primary concerns related to Almora Jr. is his questionable approach. In his time at the big league level in 2016, he swung at almost exactly 50 percent of pitches. As such, there was definitely an encouraging sign related to his approach developing over the course of June. A player who had a walk rate of only 4.3 percent last season, Almora Jr. has actually walked at a 13.4 percent rate across 67 plate appearances during the month. That’s helped carry an 8.8 percent walk rate that serves as easily his highest at any level. He hasn’t followed it up in July, but only has 16 plate appearances to his name. Should he continue to refine that approach, take more pitches, and find his way on base with more regularity as a result, that could certainly be an early step on the path towards an increased role.

Additionally, the opposite field trends tend to favor Almora. Both May and June featured Oppo% figures over 30 percent, with his 16 plate appearances thus far in July coming in at 27.3 percent. The value of a player that can make contact to all fields cannot really be overstated, so this is an essential development in Almora’s game. Almora Jr. has also made really good contact during the month of July, albeit in a minuscule sample. He’s making hard contact at a rate just over 36 percent for the month, including the home run he swatted in Saturday’s win in Baltimore.

So there are certainly signs there that Almora Jr. is taking important steps in his development as a hitter. The question is whether those steps should be enough to earn him an increased role in a Cubs’ offense that looks like it’s starting to find a rhythm. Even with an improving approach, an ability to make opposite field contact, and hit the ball harder, it’s still difficult to justify Almora Jr. in anything more than the current platoon-type situation, especially in the midst of a playoff race.

And it really has more to do with factors outside of Almora. Jason Heyward has right field on lock. Jon Jay is hitting extraordinarily well, even if his defense pales in comparison to what Almora brings. Kyle Schwarber is now back with the big club, and both Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist are going to get innings in the outfield. This is especially true in relation to Happ, who already has 23 starts in center. Unless Almora were taking some tremendous leap in his offensive ability, it’s just not easy to find a consistent place for him. The most consistency he’s going to find is in those late-inning situations where his defense is needed over the likes of Schwarber or Jay.

However, that should not necessarily undermine what Albert Almora Jr. has been able to demonstrate thus far in 2017, in terms of growth. There were serious questions about his ability to perform consistently on offense, and at the very least, he’s at least shown flashes of that development and improvement taking place at the plate. That could certainly bode well for him in terms of a role in the future. Perhaps with more consistent playing time, he could provide average production in conjunction with well above average defense, continuing to take steps in improving the offensive side. Unfortunately for Almora Jr., though, unless he truly forces Joe Maddon’s hand, we shouldn’t expect to see him riding out in the starting lineup four or five times a week anytime soon.

Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchell—USA Today Sports

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