Is this the year Albert Almora Jr. starts almost every day in center field and gets 600 plate appearances?
He’s doing all he can in Cactus League play to state his case.
As the Cubs enjoyed an off-day Monday, Almora was enjoying a good start to his spring, going 8 for 24 with a home run and four RBIs.
That’s coming off last year’s regular-season line of .286/.323/.378 with five home runs and 41 RBIs in 479 plate appearances. Almora played in 152 games, compiling an OPS-plus (where 100 is league average) of 84 and a wins above replacement (WAR) of 1.1.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon repeatedly has said he plays the matchup and tries to put players in the best position to succeed on a given day.
“Everybody needs to be developed,” Maddon said. “This group has a young core, and if you look at last season, the guy with the least amount of plate appearances among that core was, I think, (Ian) Happ.
“Albert could probably handle more, yes, but we’re pretty much going to continue to do what you saw last year in regards to moving guys in and out based on matchups.”
Almora, to his credit, always says he puts the team first, but he has bristled lately over talk that he can’t hit right-handed pitching. Maddon often will not start the right-handed-hitting Almora against tough right-handed pitching.
“I really don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Almora said recently, as quoted by cubs.com. “Because it’s redundant, and it’s something I don’t like. I don’t like to split lefties, righties.
“I’m playing baseball. I’m facing the opponents, and that’s it. I’m not saying I’m [angry] you’re asking me that. Just in general, I don’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s not something I’m going to limit myself to.”
Maddon explained to reporters his side of the right-left debate.
“Albert looks great right now,” he said. “There’s no question. And I really believe, as he moves forward, which he’s showing right now, he’s going to handle the right-handed pitcher and continually get better at that. Then, the sky’s the limit at that point.
“But, while you’re learning how to fly a little bit, you may have to walk a little bit.”
In the outfield, Almora isn’t the speediest afoot, but he improved his UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating, or runs above average per 150 games) from 1.7 to 2.9 from 2017 to 2018.
When Almora isn’t in center, Maddon can start the switch-hitting Happ or move Jason Heyward from his normal spot in right field. Happ had a line last year of .233/.353/.408 with 15 homers and 44 RBIs.
Baseball Prospectus provides its summary on Almora in its 2019 book:
“Almora appeared in all but 11 Cubs games in 2018. He also started just 94 of them. No other player who appeared in at least 150 games was in the starting lineup for fewer than 125. In fact, only four other players in major league history have appeared in as many games in a single season without reaching 100 starts: early-career Shane Victorino and Andruw Jones, late-career Ichiro Suzuki and journeyman Jim Eisenreich. It’s an unusual group, reflecting Almora’s atypical role.
“He is something more than a fourth outfielder – fourth outfielders don’t get almost 500 plate appearances – yet clearly short of a full-time regular. That’s at least partly due to Joe Maddon’s managerial tendencies and Chicago’s roster construction. It’s also an indication that Almora has not forced the issue with his performance.”
“While evaluators and fans might talk about his glove as though he is an outfielder of Jones’ caliber, the metrics do not agree, and he has yet to perform with the bat at a level that warrants 150 starts on a contender. Using Almora as a combination of fringe-average starter, platoon bat and defensive replacement is not inherently a problem for the team, but if he is to become a true full-time player, either his skills or his situation must change.”