Baseball / Sports

Cubs' Albert Almora adjusting step by step

KODAK, Tenn. -- The last of the original "Core Four" prospects to make it through the Cubs' system is likely to be center fielder Albert Almora, the initial first-round draft pick of the new regime in 2012.

By the time Almora makes it -- perhaps in September 2015 if all goes well -- Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant no doubt will have joined Javier Baez at Wrigley Field while newly acquired impact hitter Addison Russell, the "fifth Beatle" of the group, could be on the fast track as well.

But Almora isn't too worried about timelines or anything else relating to his promising career. After watching his father, Albert Almora Sr., go through cancer surgery last spring there's nothing that can really faze him.

"He's fighting every day," Albert said of his dad. "He's a strong man, and my mentor and best friend. I can't ask for anything more.

"That scare puts everything in perspective. This is just a game. We get upset after going 0-for-4 with a couple of strikeouts, but he's fighting for his life. It makes everything clear to me. At the end of the day, I have a family."

The senior Almora is recovering from surgery and was in Tennessee recently watching his son play. It hasn't been the kind of start the Cubs' prospect expected after a recent promotion from Class-A Daytona, where he hit .283 with seven homers, 20 doubles and 50 RBIs.

Almora was hitting .214 with one home run and four RBIs in his first 19 games for the Smokies, struggling to become consistent against higher competition.

"The numbers aren't there, but I feel like I'm having great at-bats," Almora said. "It's just a matter of they're not falling in right now. I feel great."

Almora got off to a similarly slow start in Daytona before rebounding, so this is nothing new for the 20-year-old. The Cubs are confident he will come around during this final month of the regular season, and hopefully into Southern League playoffs.

"Certainly he has been someone who has hit his whole life," Cubs scouting/player development director Jason McLeod said. "I think this year he has tried some different things, from a mechanical standpoint, with his stride. So maybe he has been searching a little bit throughout the year.

"He certainly has had some good streaks and (he) had the great streak in Daytona that preceded his move to Double A. And he also has battled himself sometimes too. Development-wise, it still has been a good year for him. We always like to see how some guys go through adversity and how they come out of it."

McLeod also said dealing with his father's health problems may have affected Almora's concentration level.

"Everyone loves their parents, and that's a special, tight-knit family," he said. "And when that happened toward the end of spring training (it) affected him greatly, probably more than he wanted to let on."

Despite the inconsistent hitting Almora has been a standout defensive player in center.

"He's the best defensive outfielder I've ever seen," Tennessee pitcher Pierce Johnson said. "A great guy in the clubhouse and off the field. An all-around good dude, plus his talent speaks for itself. I'm excited to see what he has in the future."

Almora suffered a freak injury before his first season at Class-A Kane County, when a Johnson pitch that hit him during an intrasquad game fractured the hamate bone in his left hand. He wound up playing only 61 games, hitting .329 with three home runs and 23 RBIs.

"I felt terrible," Johnson said. "It was a high fastball and he fouled it off. I guess that's when it happened."

But the setback didn't keep Almora down long, and once he got acclimated at Daytona this spring he took off.

Though Almora is strong at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, he's not the kind of power hitter the Cubs have in Baez, Bryant and Soler. He prefers to line balls into the gaps and use his speed.

Will Almora eventually develop more power or is he going to be a table-setter instead?

"I don't know about the power," Almora said. "I can't control any of that. Obviously you want to get stronger and I'm going to mature more. If it comes, it comes, but right now it's not my game."

So what is his game?

"Getting on base for the guys to drive me in," he said. "Getting base hits, doubles, spraying the gaps. I don't think about homers. I just think about the guys behind me who can hit them, and I know they can hit them far."

The Cubs aren't concerned about the power part of his game. McLeod said he "wouldn't be shocked" to see Almora hitting 15-plus home runs in the majors with greater physical development.

Where he will bat in the Cubs' lineup is another question. He has hit second for the most part but is an aggressive hitter who doesn't walk much.

"I can hit first or ninth, wherever they put me," he said.

McLeod said future lineups are a "constant discussion" in the organization, with the possibility of four true power hitters -- Anthony Rizzo, Baez, Soler and Bryant -- playing together down the road, plus Starlin Castro.

"It's easy to sit here in a vacuum and say, 'Since we have all these power guys here, we'll put this guy here and this guy here,'" McLeod said. "We all know it's not that easy. I think he could hit two -- or maybe three if his average gets there -- to six or seven. These guys (Bryant, Soler and Baez) will have a say in that."

When Baez got the call to the majors recently, Almora was stoked to see what his friend could do. Asked if it made him think about his own future call-up, Almora demurred.

"Oh man, I'm not thinking about that," he said. "I just have to do my own thing, and when my time comes my time will come. I can't think about that yet. I'd put too much pressure on myself."

The Core Four know each other well from being in the Cubs' system, and Almora also played with Russell on Team USA when both were in high school.

Some day they hope to be together at Wrigley Field with the Cubs, ending the legendary World Series drought and changing the way people think about the organization.

"This is a big family," Almora said. "We've heard a lot of talk about us, but there's no pressure on us because we can't control anything right now. Kris and 'George' (Soler) are in (Triple A) and I'm here with 'Addy' (Russell) and a lot of other great guys.

"Javy just got his opportunity. We'll just concentrate on where we are and work hard where we're at. Me? I'm pretty much an open book. Play hard and that's it."

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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