Last of ‘Core Four’ to Debut, Almora Still a Player to Watch

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It wasn’t all that long ago that Albert Almora was one of the “Core Four” prospects in the Cubs system.  Between him, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Kris Bryant, there was a projection down the road that made the Cubs faithful who believed in the rebuild feel a whole lot better about the entire process.

It seems that time has evolved to the point, though, where Almora is forgotten.  And because he has the least sexy tools of all of the prospects, it feels like he is starting to get a bit of the Brett Jackson treatment…the center field prospect who just hasn’t quite gotten it together.  And, for whatever reason, Almora’s walk rate is the most talked about aspect of his game.  All of this is truly mind-blowing.  This week’s series of tweets from Jeff Passan sort of illustrate that point…

Passan is right about both things he specifically says about Almora.  First, his walk rate is comically low.  Almora is also, at best, looking at a mid to late 2016 call-up (although, Schwarber is in the same boat if he is going to continue to catch).  Realistically, he probably will not make it to Chicago until 2017.  Because he was drafted in 2012, that causes some fans to wonder what’s taking so long.  Being drafted out of high school, though, it was never realistic to expect Almora to be any further along in his development than he is.  In fact, being as far as he is shows just how talented he is.  He is still over 3 years younger than the Southern League average.

The walk rate does look bad.  But Almora is not a free swinger, in the same ways as Javier Baez, for example.  Even with the 1.4% walk rate Almora showed at AA Tennessee in the second half of last season, his strike out rate was just under 16%, which isn’t all that bad.  He has a very nice contact swing, which in some ways drives him to swing at pitches he cannot drive.  When he got to AA, he got exploited a bit by more advanced pitchers who induced weak contact and a .267 BABIP in his 144 plate appearances at Tennessee last year.  Already in the early going this season, his BABIP is back up to .333, which is more consistent with his professional averages, he’s drawn 3 walks in 42 plate appearances, and working deeper counts hasn’t driven his strike out rate up in the early going, with only 3, giving him identical walk and strike out rates at 7.1% over the first week and a half.  In short, he’s working on it at the plate, and if he lays off the pitchers stuff, he can have a very nice career as a hitter.

One last point on walks, which comes from Joe Maddon, discussing Kris Bryant’s 3 walk game on Saturday:

“I think the fans, the folks who watch the game closely, they understand the importance of accepting your walks. You don’t look for your walk; you accept your walk.

If Albert Almora is willing to accept his walks, even at the rate he is this early season, he’s going  to be fine, and will probably have an on-base percentage at or above .335 because of his ability to make consistent contact and get hits.  He doesn’t have to look for them, he needs to be willing to accept them when they’re given.  There is no reason to believe that he will not grow into that at this point, and even if his rate is never high, he’ll be fine as long as he shows enough willingness to take them to force pitchers to stay in or close to the strike zone.

The scouting reports on Almora are all remarkably consistent.  Although the services rank him differently, both within the organization and on Top 100 lists (on some of which he’s fallen off of), they all see his ability to put the bat on the ball, they all see the aggressive approach at the plate, and they all see the tremendous defense in center field, and they all see excellent make-up.  It is a secret to nobody, including Almora, that the approach needs work.  In spite of that, the general consensus is that Almora becomes, at least, a solid every day major league player.  The variability in his rankings comes, in large part, from what the different services value.  Those who value high ceilings and game changing impact were never that high on Almora, anyway.  Those who value the likelihood of a player to make it to the majors and be a solid contributor, or a higher floor, rank Almora at a respectable level on top prospect listings.

Bryan Lynn / Chicago Tribune
Bryan Lynn / Chicago Tribune

In Cubs circles, Almora’s defense doesn’t get the respect it deserves.  Again, he is not a sexy player, so it isn’t as fun to banter about around the water cooler, but until he is seen, in person, it is very difficult to appreciate how good he is, getting a fast read and taking a near perfect route to the ball every time.  On top of that, his arm is also very good.  While anecdotes are not good evidence, seeing him a few times has reinforced all of the scouting reports on his defense.  He is as advertised in center field.  And it will save the Cubs quite a few runs whenever he makes it to Wrigley.

Looking forward, Almora will join Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber as the next prospects to push on the door at Wrigley Field.  While Russell will win that race, Schwarber and Almora are coming.  What will determine how successful Albert Almora is a major league player is his plate approach.  His willingness to wait for pitches he can make solid contact with is going to determine if he is a legitimate top of the order (potentially lead-off) hitter, or if he is going to hit closer to the bottom of the line-up.  Assuming the worst case, and Almora does struggle to alter his approach, he will still make it to the major leagues and play good enough defense to start in center field.  And in an outfield where he will potentially be flanked by Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler, there should be plenty of offense from the group to make them a formidable group, even if Almora’s contribution is limited.

It is easy to write off or forget about prospects, especially those who aren’t seen or will not be making a push at the major leagues anytime in the near future.  That remains the case with Albert Almora.  Like all high school draft picks, he comes with some areas that require refinement.  Unlike many, he comes with only a few true weaknesses, which can be offset by a very present willingness to improve and work on his flaws.  While he is not one of the sexy prospects with the God-like power, he is still one of the top prospects in this, or any other, system.

 

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About Andy

Sometimes I write stuff about the Cubs. Sometimes it's even good. But don't get your hopes up. Basically, my writing is like the pre-2016 Chicago Cubs.

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