Finding A Role for Albert Almora
The obvious drawback of depth in any sport is some players get lost in the shuffle and aren’t utilized as effectively as their talent would otherwise warrant.
For the 2017 Chicago Cubs, that underutilized player is 23-year-old center fielder Albert Almora. Since the team called up star prospect Ian Happ on May 13, Almora effectively lost his center fielder job and has circulated in and out of the lineup ever since. He has tallied only four complete games of work since the Cubs called up Happ after accumulating 15 such games prior to Happ’s call up.
It wasn’t supposed to unfold this way for Almora, who many predicted would man center field with veteran Jon Jay in a righty-lefty platoon setup. But the Cubs quickly fell in love with Happ, and that has made playing time scarce for Almora.
Almora has handled the transition from starting nearly everyday to utility man seamlessly, taking advantage of playing opportunities when he has received them. Since May 13, he has posted a solid slash line serving as either a fourth outfielder, spot starter, or late-inning pinch hitter.
Almora has been solid offensively ever since he was first called up to the Cubs in June last season. He is fairly disciplined at the plate, runs the bases well, and has some sneaky-solid power in his right-handed bat.
His real long-term value to this club; however, is on defense where he has shown flashes of elite-level play with some highlight-reel heroics out in center field.
Despite some of these highlight-reel plays, Almora’s overall defense has been less than stellar this season. His -2.0 ultimate zone rating is 73rd in the MLB among center fielders who have played at least 20 innings, and his defensive runs saved value is -4.
The reason for these poor numbers could be his unfamiliarity with the nuances of playing this position at Wrigley Field. He isn’t exactly an experienced center fielder at the MLB level. Almora has played 243 innings in center field this year, while Happ has already played 104 innings at this position despite only playing in 22 games and splitting time between the outfield and second base.
However, Almora projected as a major plus outfielder during his minor league days, and the steady doses of spectacular plays we’ve already seen from him this season demonstrates his upside defensively.
Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon told the Chicago Tribune on June 4 that he recognizes Almora’s upside and has tried to craft creative ways to include him in the lineup. Since then, Maddon’s actions have backed up his promise as Almora has received playing time in all four games since June 4.
This is a step in the right direction if the Cubs want to continue to give him a chance to show what he can do. In what roles can Maddon continue to give Almora playing time moving forward?
Platoon With Happ
In the last four games, Maddon has used Almora in center field in a platoon setup with Happ. The handedness and the righty-lefty splits of the opposing starter have determined which of the two Cubs players started at center field.
This is probably the most logical option for using Almora in the future. Now that he has cooled down after his sizzling start, there isn’t a need for Happ to remain an everyday starter. The Cubs should determine their starter at center field based on matchups instead of mistakenly awarding Happ with starts by default under the notion that he is a blatantly superior player to Almora.
Platoon With Kyle Schwarber
If the Cubs are dead set on continuing to give Happ as much playing time as possible, the club could look elsewhere in the outfield for another platoon partner for Almora.
Kyle Schwarber has struggled this season, forcing Maddon to relegate him to a platoon role in left field mostly with utility man Ben Zobrist serving as the other half of the duo. Schwarber was an everyday starter for most of the season, but has posted a laughable .135/.319/.243 slash line against left-handed pitchers hence his demotion to a platoon role.
Pairing him with a right-handed batter like Almora who has been crushing left-handed pitching thus far this season(.350/.435/.550) seems like a logical solution to the problem.
As for Zobrist, his services may be needed in a different realm due to an extenuating circumstance…..
Russell Fallout Chain Reaction
A recent development may open up more playing time for Almora and force him into a platoon role with Schwarber. If Addison Russell’s domestic abuse allegations are proven substantive, then MLB could suspend him for a significant length of time (suspension length comes at the discretion of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, for context former Cub’s pitcher Aroldis Chapman received a 30-game suspension for domestic abuse although his case involved the use of a firearm). If MLB does suspend Russell, it would set off a chain reaction where several Cubs players would have to shift positions to fill in at a teammate’s spot in the field to cover for Russell absence. With Russell gone, slick-fielding Javier Baez presumably becomes the everyday shortstop, opening up a vacancy at second base. In this scenario, Zobrist probably becomes the everyday second baseman after bouncing between second base and left field for most of the season.
With Zobrist no longer manning left field regularly, Schwarber will need a right-handed batter who he can share platoon duties with in left field. Enter Almora, who seems like a perfect candidate to serve as Schwarber’s platoon mate because of his outstanding numbers against left-handed pitchers (the other option, Jon Jay, is also a left-handed hitter so it doesn’t make much sense to platoon him with Schwarber). Additionally, from a developmental standpoint, the less rigorous left field position may help ease Almora’s defensive development more effectively than continuing to throw him in the fire at center field.
Almora needs to stay ready for whatever role Maddon may challenge him with on any given day. Part of the beauty of the Chicago Cubs is the plethora of players willing to embrace the utility man role and fill in wherever and whenever they are needed. Zobrist and Baez are Swiss army knives in every sense of the metaphor, while the veteran Jay came to Chicago knowing he’d have to bounce around positions and roles depending on what the team needed. This “do anything to win” culture oozes over to the pitching staff as well as Mike Montgomery has dazzled in hybrid, middle-relief spots this season.
Almora may become the latest in a long line of Chicago Cubs players who have not only embraced the target, but embraced their constantly fluctuating roles on this team.
Paul Steeno spent 11 years pretending he was good at running. After hanging up the track spikes and officially becoming an elite hobby jogger, he decided to do something that he was actually good at: like writing about the Cubs. He is also a perpetually frustrated Chicago Bulls fan. This one time he got super lucky and ran 3:52 in the 1500 meter run.