As the hot stove remains relatively frigid, and rumors swirl of the Cubs potentially pursuing Christian Yelich or Lorenzo Cain in the right deal, there are still elements of a potential 2018 roster to examine. And as things stand right now, the player that is most likely qualified to man the position in which either of those options would slot could very well be Albert Almora. Despite the presence of Ian Happ and Jason Heyward, Almora is the only true centerfielder currently on the roster, though he has yet to take the developmental steps forward that you’d like to see from him at this point in time.
Nonetheless, there are some things to like about Almora’s game, on both sides of the ball. There are those who previously viewed Almora as a glove-first, or even glove-only asset, with his bat not showcasing nearly as much upside as his defense. Even after a year where defensive metrics didn’t favor him a whole lot (-1.1 FRAA), there are still plenty who love his tools as a defender, even if he doesn’t represent a trustworthy option as an everyday offensive player.
But exactly what are we meant to make of Almora at this point? Is he merely a fourth outfielder who matches up well against lefties and can regularly serve as a late-game substitute for defensive purposes? Or was his tail end of 2017 enough to validate an opportunity to succeed as the team’s everyday centerfielder in 2018?
The following represents Almora’s overall offensive output from 2017, along with his splits against right and left-handed pitching:
|2017 vs. L||125||.342||.411||13.6||10.4||0.144||137||.307|
|2017 vs. R||198||.271||.291||18.2||3.0||0.149||81||.244|
On the surface, the total body of work actually looks quite nice, small walk rate be damned. But a quick look at the splits indicates that Almora’s numbers are heavily buoyed by his output against lefties. However, the intriguing thing is that in September, Almora actually fared far better against righties, with a wRC+ of 211, albeit in only 32 plate appearances. Nonetheless, it was a hot stretch. Is that something we should read into, though, or merely a fluke in a minuscule sample?
Interestingly enough, Almora actually hit the ball harder against right-handed pitching than he did against lefties, with a hard-hit rate coming in at right about 30 percent, a two point advantage over his hard-hit rate against left-handed pitching. However, he also put the ball on the ground over half the time against right-handed pitching, which contributed to his BABIP being 60 points lower against pitchers of that handedness.
There was some modest success against righties in 2016, but it’s hard to put too much stock in anything that Almora did during that year, given that he only snagged 117 plate appearances during the season. Even with that brief sample showing something of a positive blip against right-handed pitching, it’s difficult to declare him anything but what he was in 2017: struggling against righties while feasting against left-handed pitching. It’s important to note that the value of the latter aspect shouldn’t be understated. His success against southpaws is absolutely a weapon that the Cubs can utilize moving forward; it just doesn’t necessarily make him an asset as an everyday player.
Ultimately, it may not even come down to splits that determine whether or not Almora can be anything above a defense-first, platoon option on the North Side. His offensive development as a whole is going to determine that. That means less strikeouts, more walks, both of which factor into improving his overall approach and maybe developing a little more on the power side. And at this point, it’s really difficult to see those developments manifesting themselves anytime soon. Throughout his time in the minor leagues, Almora routinely posted walk rates at or below five percent, with his pitches per plate appearances graduating from 3.37 to only 3.45 from 2016 to 2017. If he was an especially high contact guy, maybe you forgive some of those shortcomings because of his zone coverage, but he’s not.
Almora is probably more than the glove-first, late-game defensive sub some thought he would be earlier in his career. But is he enough to warrant consideration as the everyday guy, in the event that the Cubs pursue other center field options, or move Ian Happ for pitching? Probably not. There’s some pop there, and he could absolutely be prone to hot streaks. But at this point, it’s really difficult to see him in a role beyond that of a fourth outfielder who gets some starts against left-handed pitching (perhaps subbing in for Jason Heyward regularly) and sees action in late-game defensive situations. There were points at which I thought that wouldn’t be the case, especially in the last month of the year, but the total body of work and the shortcomings that are present in his game make it really tough to expect much more out of him than that. He’s more than a glove, but he’s less than what the Cubs need him to be to give him an expanded role in 2018.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports