For some time now, Albert Almora, Jr., has been the heir-apparent in center fielder for the Chicago Cubs. Almora was the sixth overall selection by the Cubs brain trust in 2012 as Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod made him the first selection of their tenure.
He’s made a smooth progression each season since being called up, going from mostly a defensive replacement during his first season in 2016 to part of Cubs’ center field platoon in 2017. It would seem natural for 2018 to be the season Almora would get his chance to take over as the full-time center fielder, and only one thing stands between him getting 500 at-bats this season. His name is Ian Happ.
As the other half of the Cubs’ CF platoon, Happ has made it very difficult for Almora to take the job. While he isn’t anywhere near the center fielder Almora is defensively, the Cubs have given him every opportunity to play there in hopes that his speed and athleticism make up for the lack of natural feel for the position.
Offensively, he’s shown that he can be a force. The 2015 first rounder posted an .842 OPS, 114 OPS+, and 24 home runs during his rookie campaign and quite frankly offers more offensive upside than Almora.
Happ has started strong this spring (three homers already to this point) and has looked very comfortable in the leadoff spot, which was (and still is) a big area of uncertainty when the Cubs opened camp. Not only has Happ played well in the leadoff spot, but he has also been working with former Padres outfielder and current coach Will Venable to become a better center fielder.
Add those two things together, and it’s likely Happ is not only the Cubs’ leadoff hitter when they break camp, but also the starting center fielder.
So where does this leave Almora? I think there are two answers to that.
In the short term, it leaves him as 1) the fourth outfielder and 2) the right-handed bat in a potential platoon depending on how Happ, Jason Heyward, and Kyle Schwarber perform in 2018.
While Almora’s situation isn’t what he would want, it doesn’t mean he can’t be productive in that role. In fact, there’s a player Almora compares closely to who has made the most of a similar situation.
Gerardo Parra ranked No. 88 in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects in 2009, and while he had all the tools to be the everyday center fielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks, he never had an opportunity to be the full-time guy with the likes of Justin Upton, Chris Young, and others in a crowded Arizona outfield. Fast forward nine years, Parra has played for four teams and been a valuable contributor in each stop.
Parra has been very productive career despite the fact that he has started 140+ games just one time in his career. He’s posted a 10.6 bWAR and 15.1 WARP over his nine years in MLB. While his numbers are helped tremendously by his defensive prowess (he had Gold Gloves in ’11 and ’13), he has also been respectable at the dish, adding a .731 OPS.
Almora is talented and is just 23 years old so there’s more than enough time for him to carve out a full-time role somewhere. If Schwarber doesn’t bounce back or if Heyward struggles again, he’ll get every opportunity to play every day. He showed that he has the ability to thrive in a platoon role with limited at-bats in ’17 (.298/.338/.445) and has room to take another step forward offensively with more at-bats this season.
Is it a disappointment if Almora is never the Cubs’ full-time center fielder?
No. The way the Cubs’ current roster is constructed, his role is as a platoon player. Since more teams are using platoons, who’s to say he wouldn’t be in the same situation elsewhere?
Long term, maybe Almora gets moved to a team in need of a center fielder, and maybe he doesn’t. Regardless of what the Cubs’ plans are for his future, he can still be a big piece for the club in ’18 and potentially a big piece for someone else in ’19 and beyond.
Lead photo courtesy Jim Young—USA Today Sports