Cubs' Almora says he's putting team ahead of personal goals
MESA, Ariz. -- There are a couple noticeable differences with Chicago Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. this spring.
One is a full head of curly hair that his baseball cap can barely contain.
The other is that, like most of his Cubs teammates, he has come to spring training looking lean and hungry.
"A lot is different," he said on a rainy Thursday morning. "Father of two now. Just working hard."
The Cubs' first-round draft choice in 2012 -- the first season of the current baseball-operations team headed by Theo Epstein -- Almora is now 25 and entering a key phase of his career.
There are plenty of people in fan and media circles who feel Almora should play every day. Almora has heard the talk, but he's not wading into those waters.
"I appreciate that," he said. "I also see that, but I just want to win. Honestly, it's just the way I was raised. I was always, always taught to put others before myself, especially in this sport. This sport is a team game. You can have a great game and your guys lose. I was always like, 'Put the team first and try to win games.'"
Cubs manager Joe Maddon insists he puts out a lineup every day geared toward doing that, and there are days when the lineup does not include Almora, much to the chagrin of his backers, many of whom always seem to love the guy who isn't playing.
Those on either side of the Almora aisle can state their cases with some strength.
Last year, Almora led all Cubs center fielders in starts, with 94. Ian Happ started 49 games in center, and Jason Heyward moved from right field to start 20 games in center field.
For the season, Almora put up a batting line of .286/.323/.378 with 5 homers and 41 RBI in 152 games, up from the 132 games he played in 2017. His at-bats went from 299 in 2017 to 444 last year. His wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.com, was 1.1 in both years. His OPS-plus, where league average is 100, went from 100 in 2017 to 84 in 2018.
Where it's gets interesting are in the splits for the right-handed-batting Almora:
• Against left-handed pitching, he went .295/.340/.402.
• Against righties, it was .282/.305/.369.
• Before the all-star break, Almora went .319/.357/.438.
• After the break, it was .232/.267/.280.
Maddon said he will continue to work his lineups based on matchups.
"That's just going to be based on opportunity because based on the structure of the team -- we've talked about this, I've talked to him about it -- he could be playing really well, which he was, (but) on certain days, you're still going to see a left-hander playing some center field," the manager said. "That's just the way it's going to be.
"He just needs to continually control what he's capable of controlling. He looks great. He could not look better than what he looks like right now. I didn't even know it was him running after some fly balls the other day. I said, 'Who is that?' 'It's Albert.' 'Come on.' He's really moving well. Watching him in the cages, his swing looks good. He is not just saying all the right things, he means it when he says all the right things. He's going to have a great year."
Baseball Prospectus has described Almora's defense as "subjectively intense but empirically OK."
Cubs President Theo Epstein, however, praised Almora for being aggressive and for "finishing plays at the end of his range."
Almora doesn't possess the greatest speed, but his defense has improved by any of several measures, including ultimate zone rating/150, or runs above average per 150 defensive games. Almora improved in that stat from 1.7 to 2.9 from 2017-18.
"Instincts," he said. "I feel that I think of plays before they happen. A lot of credit to the coaching staff for putting me in the right place. I just go out there and go get it."
Speaking of 150 games, Almora said he would love to start that many, but he isn't publicly lobbying.
"Everybody in here would say that," he said. "As a competitor, you want to be in there every day. I would be lying to you if I said no, but when you try to put the team first, you don't focus on that."
As the first draft choice of the Epstein era, Almora also is part of the young "core" of players the Cubs have been touting for years.
After the Cubs' flameout at the end of last season, Epstein said it was time to talk about "production" over "potential."
Almora said he's fully on board with that notion.
"Just go to Joe's slogan: 'Own it now,'" he said. "It just emphasizes that we've got to do it this year. We've got to do it now. We can't think of the future. We have to think of right now."