July sure feels like a long time ago. Back then, the Cubs were positioning themselves for the Wild Card race, considering whether to make a deal or two at the deadline, and welcoming Kyle Schwarber into the fold to stay.
As it turned out, July was moving time for a trio of non-Schwarber Cubs youngsters, starting with star Kris Bryant. Many of us remember Kris Bryant's painful slump. After posting an OPS north of .800 in each of his first three calendar months in the Major Leagues, Bryant's line cratered to .168/.270/.368 in July, causing some to wonder if he had hit the proverbial rookie wall. Of course, we know how Bryant's story ended: he decided that the .800 baseline was a bit below his standards, so he posted an OPS north of .900 in each of the season's final two months, posting a .323/.400/.567 line the rest of the way en route to numerous Cubs records and a likely Rookie of the Year victory.
However, believe it or not, I'm not really here today to write about Kris Bryant. I'm sure that you followed him closely this year. That was a tremendous idea.
I'm here to write primarily about two Cubs prospects who may very well look back at July 2015 as a crossroads in their careers.
The first is former super-prospect utilityman Arismendy Alcantara. Alcantara slowly climbed the organizational ladder with the Cubs, stopping at one level each year along the way before making his Major League debut with a memorable showing in Cincinnati in 2014. In January 2014, Alcantara made his debut on the Top 100 Prospects list compiled by Baseball Prospectus, his first such appearance. By midseason, Alcantara had screamed up to 18th on the list with former BP prospect guru and current Cubs scout Jason Parks calling Alcantara a "future first-division player" with "three-way impact potential at the highest level (hit/glove/run)."
Alcantara would scuffle after his outstanding debut, but he arrived at Spring Training 2015 with a chance to win a job. His solid, unspectacular spring got him onto the Major League roster, but Alcantara struggled mightily to start the year and didn't survive April in Chicago. He appeared to take his demotion in stride, however, as Alcantara posted a .256/.312/.476 batting line through July 19, utilizing his tremendous speed and continuing to hit for excellent power even if his on-base skills were somewhat lacking. At the very least, Alcantara was well-positioned to help the Cubs in September as a versatile bench piece, capable of defending numerous positions and providing pop from an otherwise power-light bench group.
And then it all fell apart. For the rest of the season, Alcantara posted a .177/.224/.227 batting line, swiping just three bags while being caught twice. For a player with his skillset, Alcantara mustered an almost-impossible .224 BABIP over those final 154 plate appearances.
As of mid-July, Alcantara looked very much like a viable contender for a long-term job, be it as a supersub, centerfielder, or second baseman. By mid-September, Alcantara found himself without a call-up and without the same bright future he enjoyed just a few months earlier. While it's too early to give up on Alcantara, his pedigree has certainly tumbled.
But July wasn't exclusively bad news down on the farm.
Albert Almora left the Tennessee Smokies July 4 to join Team USA in order to prepare for and compete in the Pan American Games. He had really struggled in his full-season return to Double-A to that point, posting just a .249/.294/.365 batting line and prompting articles like this one lamenting his lack of offensive progress. It wasn't all bad news as his strikeout rate remained between 10% and 11% and his walk rate climbed to a respectable 5.5%.
But Almora's run with Team USA ignited a second half that has reilluminated Almora's prospect star. Over the final month and a half of the season, Almora hit at a torrid pace, posting a .302/.370/.448 batting line, and, perhaps most importantly for him, kicking his walk rate up all the way to 8.8% while maintaining his 10.3% strikeout rate.
Almora's defensive prowess has never been questioned. His offense, on the other hand, has been polarizing for some time now. Personally, I have ranked Almora at wildly different points in my personal prospect rankings, sometimes competing with the likes of Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber and other times finding himself outside of the top 10 in the system. Having seen him in person a handful of times, it's tough not to fall in love with the tools...and it's also tough to see his underdeveloped approach at the plate.
July 2015 could very well be the pivot point for Almora that has him back on a trajectory pointing toward to a regular Major League job. The Cubs don't necessarily need Almora to emerge as an offensive force, but every team could use to score more runs and the Cubs definitely need a long-term center fielder in addition to a continued flow of cheap talent. Almora could be a perfect solution to numerous issues for the big club.
We don't know exactly where Almora's path will take him, just like we don't know exactly how Alcantara will turn out. We do know, however, that development is rarely, if ever, a clean process. Players experience ups and downs on their path to the Major Leagues.
Five years from now, July 2015 could very well be the one month where Kris Bryant didn't pulverize baseballs. It could be the month that Arismendy Alcantara points to as his low point, causing him to revamp his swing en route to reinventing himself as a more contact-oriented centerfielder. It could be the month where Albert Almora took what had been a middling development path and attached a rocket to it.
We won't know for years. What we do know is that we think much differently about Alcantara and Almora after July 2015 than we did before it. And that's something.