You never want to rush prospects. The Cubs have had a few examples that we don't need to rehash here. Suffice to say that the Cubs organization hasn't always put a premium on development.
Still, there are some prospects who are ahead of the curve. They are more mature both physically (from a skills standpoint) and mentally and can handle the challenge. For those kind of players, the standard timeline does not apply. We've seen that already with Kris Bryant and we expect that to continue into next season.
Another player who could move quickly in 2014 is Albert Almora. And though he didn't even play a full season in A ball last year due to injury, don't be surprised if he is nipping at the heels of Bryant and Javy Baez by the end of the year.
Almora is one of the more polished high school players we've seen in the past few years. While he doesn't have the ceiling of someone like Javier Baez or Jorge Soler, he is a safer bet to reach that ceiling.
I've seen Almora a lot over the past couple of years, first in instructs and then again at Kane County last year. He quietly exudes confidence on the field. He's mature for his age and a natural leader. Ye he plays the game with the passion you would expect from a 19 year old kid.
Between the lines, he particularly stands out in two areas. The first is his defense. Almora has average to slightly above average speed but he more than makes up for that by getting an excellent jump on the ball and taking efficient, direct routes. He's not afraid to leave his feet and make spectacular plays in the field but more often than not, he makes it look easy out there. He gets a good read and puts himself in position to make the throw when necessary. He has a good arm but I wouldn't call it a cannon, yet Almora has 11 assists in 92 career games in the field. He turned 3 DPs from the outfield with his arm last year in 59 games.
This may be a strange comparison but when I think of Almora in the outfield, I think of....Greg Maddux. That is not to say he's going to be a Hall of Fame defender, but rather what I mean is that, to me, Maddux always had good stuff, but it was by no means elite. He played up his stuff because he knew the game so well and was able to consistently max out good tools so that, at game time, they played like elite tools. Maddux was an artist on the mound. Almora will be one in CF. He is already the Cubs best at the position in the organization and it isn't really close.
The second area is his ability to repeatedly make hard contact.
Almora's strength on offense is his ability to make contact and hit for average. Despite a rather high leg kick, it's a fluid swing in which he keeps his head still while the bat stays in the zone a long time, allowing him to see the ball well and consistently barrel up the baseball. He didn't walk much (6.3%) while at Kane County but the pitch recognition skills are evident. It was almost as surprising to see Almora swing wildly at a bad pitch as it was to see him swing and miss. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've seen Almora chase a ball well out of the strike zone -- and I wouldn't need all 5 fingers to do so.
Don't forget that Almora broke his hammate bone in the spring and missed the entire first month of the season, then came into play with no real spring training -- and he still hit .363 in his first 27 games. In that time frame, he had only 5 games in which he went hitless and 11 multi-hit games, including 6 in which he had 3 or more. Think about that -- a month off of baseball and Almora comes back and has more 3+ hit games than he did hitless games in roughly his first month back.
He couldn't possibly make progress from there, could he?
I'm happy you asked because in some ways, I'm more excited about the rest of Almora's season. The league adapted but so did Almora. When they stopped challenging him, he became more selective and struck out less.
For the next 35 games, Almora struck out just 12 times while walking 12 in 156 PAs. That is a 7.7% rate for each, so Almora ended up improving his walk rate while also significantly improving his already ridiculous contact rate. There is no question in mind that he was ready for a call-up to Daytona before he got hurt. He was simply too good for the Midwest League. Overall, Almora ended up hiting .329/.376/.466 at Kane County.
Almora then had another 2 months off and picked up where he left off in the AZ Fall League, which is roughly equivalent to a good high A ball league, though it may be slightly higher because there are many AA players in the AZL. The "rusty" Almora simply went out and hit .307/.342/.480 in 21 games there despite being one of the youngest players in the league. It seems the kid can roll out of bed at 3 a.m. grab a bat and hit a line drive into the left-center field gap. It only seems that way because Almora works hard at his craft.
As for his power, Almora isn't in the same league as Bryant, Baez, and Soler. He doesn't have their physical strength and, as mentioned earlier, his bat stays in the zone a long time and that is more indicative of a line-drive hitter who should hit for average. However, Almora makes such consistent hard contact that every so often he's going to crush it with just enough back spin on the ball, so it wouldn't surprise me to see him hit around 15 HRs per year without having to sell out for power.
So what I think we'll see out of Almora is roughly a .290 to .300 hitter who will walk at an average rate and put up an OBP in the .350 to .360 range while hitting double digit HRs. Keep in mind that that kind of hitter will also be playing Gold Glove caliber defense at a premium position. He's not going to have the ceiling of Baez, Soler, or Bryant on offense, but the potential for solid offensive numbers combined with top shelf CF defense means he has the ability to provide tremendous value for the team.
That is the hopeful expectation. But the floor for Almora is what makes things a little less worrisome. As long as he stays healthy, he should at least be a good hitter for average who plays great defense. The power and the ability to have at least an average walk rate aren't quite as certain -- but even if you have a guy playing great defense at a premium position and hitting in the .280-290 range with 5-8 HRs, that's still good value over his first 6 years. The key phrase for Almora is "as long as he stays healthy". He's had trouble doing that early in his career, but there's nothing to indicate that it hasn't been just bad luck so far.
I'm excited to see what the coaching staff at Daytona can do with Almora. Mariano Duncan has helped many hitters take that next step by improving their approach at the plate. We could see Almora make a mid-season jump to Tennessee the way Baez did last year and if Almora has success at AA, he may not be all that far behind Baez and Bryant when it comes to donning the pinstripes at Wrigley.
Filed under: prospects