Albert Almora Jr. was the Cubs’ No. 1 draft pick (sixth overall) in 2012, the first top pick by Theo Epstein’s regime.
For the next four years he was rated a top 100 prospect, even while struggling at times in the minor leagues and missing parts of some seasons with injuries.
Then he was called up to the Cubs for the first time when Dexter Fowler went down with an injury in June. He made an immediate impact both offensively and defensively, wound up hitting a decent .277/.308/.455 in 117 plate appearances (and that means he still has rookie status for 2017), and in World Series Game 7 his heads-up baserunning helped lead to the Cubs’ game-winning rally.
In addition to watching him play during the 2016 season, I have seen Almora play quite a number of spring-training games over the last couple of years. He often showed off his defensive skills. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he might be the best defensive center fielder in the major leagues right now — and that’s even including guys like Kevin Kiermaier and Kevin Pillar, established major leaguers who excel in the field.
This year, Almora appears slated to platoon with Jon Jay in center field. This is likely a very good idea. It will allow Almora — who doesn’t turn 23 until April — a chance to break in to the major leagues gradually, and also take advantage of the platoon splits. Jay is a better hitter vs. RHP (.746 lifetime OPS) than LHP (.707 lifetime OPS), though the difference isn’t large. Almora, in a small sample size, hit lefties better in 2016 (.827 OPS) than righties (.724 OPS). Almora will also probably wind up in left field from time to time in place of Kyle Schwarber.
The question I would put to you is this: Will Almora hit well enough eventually to become an everyday center fielder? On the other hand, maybe he doesn’t have to. Both Kiermaier (.258/.313/.425 career) and Pillar (.267/.303/.385 career) don’t hit much, yet they provide excellent value to their teams via defense. Almora seems poised to be exactly that kind of player, and with the offensive weapons the Cubs already have in Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and others, maybe it doesn’t matter if Almora hits or not.
If Almora sticks in the big leagues as a regular center fielder, that will make three straight years of top picks of the Theo regime who became either everyday players or stars, and four top picks in a row including Jim Hendry’s last No. 1 pick, Javier Baez. I’m looking forward to seeing what Almora can do this year.