Year in Review:
Going into the 2017 season, Albert Almora, Jr. represented one of the true wild cards of the Cubs roster, as far as position players are concerned. In a somewhat crowded outfield, Almora was going to have to earn every bit of playing time, especially with the Jon Jay signing that had many expecting a platoon coming into the season. While a platoon was what we got in many ways, and while Almora didn’t quite latch onto a starting gig quite in the fashion that might’ve been hoped for/expected, there were a lot of flashes that at least point to some semblance of upside for him moving forward.
In a lot of ways, Almora turned in production not entirely unlike we’d grown to expect through scouting reports and minor league statistics. Both TAv and wRC+ liked Almora as a just-about-average offensive player in 2017, boasting decent average and on-base figures but not providing much in the way of pop. He didn’t find his way on base via the free pass too often, with a walk rate under six percent, and with a strikeout rate that came in a touch over 16 percent. His contact rate came in at 75.3 percent, which put him well into the second half of outfielders with at least 300 plate appearances. There’s still development to go on the offensive side for him, which causes his status with the team to be a bit murky moving forward. However, he does have a couple of things going for him.
First is the defense, which is really the staple of Almora’s skill set, and has been for some time. Metrics didn’t like him as much, with both FRAA (-1.1) and Defensive Runs Saved (-1) coming in just a shade below average. His UZR per 150 games, according to FanGraphs, looked somewhat more favorable for him, coming in at 2.3. From a statistical standpoint, it wasn’t a terrific year, especially coming off of a 2016 in which his FRAA came in at 1.6 and UZR/150 was over 23 (albeit in far fewer appearances). However, the range and the glove are so obviously there, as well as the arm, which allows Almora to maintain sizable value as a centerfielder.
What he also did extremely well in 2017 was hit left-handed pitching, especially toward the end of the year. Almora’s TAv vs. LHP to date is .307 compared to .244 against right-handed pitching. On the wRC+ side, Almora went for a 137 mark against southpaws vs. just an 81 against RHP in 2017. He demonstrated more power against righties, but the line drive rate was significantly higher against left-handers (28.0 percent versus 16.4). That contributed to a .378 BABIP, which was over 60 points higher than his mark against right-handed pitching. His average against lefties? .342 compared to .271 against righties. On the OBP side, he reached base at a .411 clip compared to just .291 against right-handed pitching. An above-average defensive centerfielder who absolutely mashes left-handed pitching? Sounds like a guy with some value. It’s just a matter of how the Cubs plan to utilize that value.
The Cubs outfield is somewhat in flux this winter. Kyle Schwarber is a trade candidate. Ian Happ is a trade candidate. The Cubs would likely love to unload Jason Heyward’s contract onto someone else. Jon Jay is a free agent. With all that going on, Albert Almora’s position isn’t exactly solidified either. Christian Yelich and Kevin Kiermaier are both names that have been tossed out in the most cavalier of fashions, but might at least indicate that the Cubs are in search of an outfield upgrade. Could the Cubs look to move Almora in a package for pitching? Absolutely. Could the Cubs try to give him a longer leash to develop his offensive game and bounce back on the defensive side? Sure.
It’s probably easier to determine the type of production that might be expected from Almora moving forward than his place and future with the Cubs. We know there’s a ton of upside with the glove, and that should continue to manifest itself, perhaps in a way that is more reflected in the defensive metrics next season. He mashes lefties. If there’s more consistency against righties to be found, and perhaps a bit more power, we’re talking about a legitimate starting centerfielder, once he shakes off the raw bits. However, it’s unclear if he will be afforded the opportunity to complete that process with the Cubs. Hopefully we’ll get more clarity as December wears on. Given his current skill set and potential, though, handing him the reins as the starter in center is certainly an idea worth exploring, the Cubs’ lack of a true leadoff man be damned.
Lead photo courtesy Jim Young—USA Today Sports