Center field was an island of stability in an otherwise changing sea for the Cubs the past two years, both with their batting order and defense.
Dexter Fowler put the “go” into the offense from the leadoff spot and was the primary center fielder. Manager Joe Maddon would tell Fowler, “You go, we go,” before his at-bats.
Fowler has gone, to the St. Louis Cardinals. Kyle Schwarber likely will take over leadoff duties, and the tandem of Jon Jay and Albert Almora Jr. will share time in center field.
Jay, who celebrates his 32nd birthday Wednesday, is expected to pave the way for the soon-to-be 23-year-old Almora, who got a taste of the big leagues last year in the regular season and postseason. The Cubs signed Jay to a one-year contract this offseason after he spent six seasons with the Cardinals and last year with the San Diego Padres.
A broken right forearm limited Jay to 90 games last year, but he has World Series-winning experience with St. Louis.
“I’m just another voice here that has some experience,” he said early in spring training. “It’s all about fighting for that ring and getting into October. Last year was the first year I missed that. It was kind of hard watching it on TV. It’s nice to be back in that atmosphere.”
The Cubs like Jay’s leadership ability and his friendship with Almora. The two are workout buddies in Miami.
Jay has a lifetime on-base percentage of .352. His .996 fielding percentage in center field is the highest among active players with at least 500 games at the position.
“I’ve been in a lot of different situations when I was in St. Louis, where I started off the year not playing much or was projected this or projected that. But I’m not worried about that. That’s been the same message I told Albert. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ve just got to go out there and be ready to play every day, and everything will work itself out.”
The Cubs might or might not go with a straight platoon with the left-handed hitting Jay and the right-handed Almora to start the season, but with Almora being the Cubs’ first-round draft pick in 2012, the assumption is he will take over the center-field job at some point. Jay seems OK with sharing time.
“That’s the role I started off on,” he said. “You never know when it’s going to be your turn. You’ve got to be mentally prepared, physically prepared and just ready to roll.”
Both can play all three outfield positions, so both could be in the lineup on some days.
Almora, who plays the outfield with an authority belying his youth, got into 47 regular-season games in 2016, compiling a line of .277/.308/.455 with nine doubles, a triple, three home runs and 14 RBIs. He got into nine postseason games, scoring the go-ahed run in Game 7 of the World Series after tagging up and going from first to second on a fly out to center.
“I just took all the experience,” Almora said. “I feel like what I got the most is that now I know what it takes to be a winning ballclub. And it’s everybody in the clubhouse coming together. When I got called up, usually you think as a rookie you can’t speak and you’ve got to be quiet and so forth. But when I got here, it was like I had been a part of the team for 10 years. They let me be myself, and I feel like that’s a big thing.
“It’s a big thing just playing baseball freely, having a lot of fun and playing the game hard. That’s what I take out of it.”
The Cubs would like Almora to improve his on-base percentage, but they won’t rush it.
“Everybody always talks about plate discipline,” Maddon said. “But you’ve got to be careful. Some guys just come with that chip. Some guys do not. And the guys that do not, you have to be careful that while you’re instructing it that you don’t take away this kind of aggressiveness because it’s hard to teach.”