Since becoming the first draft selection of the Epstein era in 2012, Albert Almora Jr. has had a lot to prove. After all, he’s the only high school player the Cubs’ current front office has taken with their first pick. As such, it took the young centerfielder five years to progress through the minor leagues until cracking the big-league roster in early June 2016 at the age of 22.
After a decent showing in his debut season with just north of 100 plate appearances, many believed Dexter Fowler’s departure would provide Almora a chance to assume the starting role in center. However, things didn’t end up that way. For much of the early part of the season, Almora platooned with veteran outfielder Jon Jay. Then along came Ian Happ, who got a great deal of the run in center after his mid-May call-up.
With Jay gone and uncertainty as to where Happ will fit, Almora once again finds himself in the familiar position of being ready to assume an everyday role. However, there are still plenty of question marks surrounding his performance in the field and at the plate.
Almora finished the 2017 season with 323 plate appearances, slashing .298/.338/.445 with a wRC+ of 103, above-average marks all around. The issue is that his stats were buoyed by an astounding .342 AVG with a .411 OBP in 125 plate appearances against lefties. On the flip side of that is a .271/.291/.420 line with a wRC+ of 81 against right-handed pitchers.
Those splits make him look like a prime candidate to resume a platoon role, though Almora showed during the second half that he may indeed be ready for something bigger. He put up an .894 OPS with a 123 wRC+ against righties in the second half. Small sample size warnings apply, but that cuts both ways. Even if you’re skeptical of the elevated numbers against RHP in the second half, you should be equally so of the low numbers in the first half. Simply put, Almora has shown that he can hit lefties and we’ve seen glimpses of the ability to hit righties as well.
A bigger task next season will be to take a more patient approach at the plate, elevating an OBP that has been average at best thus far. To wit, his anemic .311 OBP against righties in the second half was actually eight points lower than his batting average in that time. The young outfielder has shown that he possesses the overall offensive potential to handle the task of playing every day. Now it’s a matter of showing that he can do it more consistently.
A final question about Almora’s game is his play in the field. His wizardry with the glove carried him through the minor leagues, but he was unable to settle into a rhythm defensively and many questioned his value in that regard. It seemed at times as though he had adopted an overly aggressive approach in the field to make the most of his reduced playing time. It’s entirely possible that a regular role would allow Almora to stay more within himself.
And then there’s the matter of the obvious increased bulk Almora carried with him into spring training last season. He put on noticeable muscle mass in an attempt to add a little more pop at the plate, but it may have backfired by inhibiting his range in center. Not possessed of blazing speed to begin with, Almora relies on getting great jumps and reads on balls. Losing even half a step would not have been in his best interest.
With a season of learning and growing in a platoon role last season, Almora looks to be ready to take on the challenge of assuming a larger role in 2018. He has a good shot at racking up at least 400 plate appearances, which should more firmly establish who he really is as a hitter. And if he is who he was in the second half of 2017, he will prove to the front office and Cubs fans alike why he was taken at such a young age to kick off the rebuild several years ago.