There’s no doubt that Albert Almora Jr. is a fan favorite. If he doesn’t start for more than a few days in a row, the #FreeAlmora hash tag is bound to be out in full force. He’s young, charismatic, and has been flashing serious leather in recent games, so it’s easy to see why the fans love him. But can he continue to contribute at a high enough level to justify regular starts?
The Cubs rarely have to ask “who’s on first?” but the question of who will start in the outfield is a hotly debated topic. Some do not agree with Joe Maddon’s regular changes in the lineup; however, the skipper is not concerned. Maddon recently told ESPN that he doesn’t care what people say about how often he changes his lineups, criticizing the entire conversation as unnecessary and outdated.
“I try not to comment on it, because really it’s such a poor discussion,” Maddon said. “There’s no sophistication to it whatsoever. It makes zero sense. It doesn’t belong in today’s game.”
The Cubs have used 28 different lineups so far this season, the sixth most in Major League Baseball. Is it such a problem to have so many talented players that the lineup needs to be juggled in order to provide equal playing time?
Almora, Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, and Jason Heyward make up the core of the Cubs’ 2018 outfield, with Ben Zobrist and a few others making rare appearances. The majority of the platoon style lineup takes place here, with Schwarber getting the most starts at 34, followed by Heyward with 29. Happ and Almora are tied with 27 starts each and 39 total games.
Both Happ and Schwarber have been under the microscope the past two seasons, with some doubting their defensive strengths. It seems that when either struggle, the Twitterverse quickly brings forth the #FreeAlmora chants.
It’s not surprising, as Almora is flashier on the field and has the most agility and speed of the three. He recently robbed Tyler Flowers of a home run on May 16 versus the Braves, effortlessly scaling the wall to make the grab above the 400 sign.
Just a casual robbery. pic.twitter.com/HCFkeDzJ64
— MLB (@MLB) May 17, 2018
The eye test is one thing, and it’s usually what fans rely heavily on when voicing support for one player or another. Not to say that Almora is not deserving of every start he gets, but do the numbers match the hype?
Almora currently has a WAR of 1.5, second on the team only to Kris Bryant‘s 2.4. He is also 21 percent better than league average with 121 wRC+ and an above-average BABIP of .371. He has been making good contact for hits to supplement his solid defense. The high BABIP will likely not be sustainable throughout the entire season, but his consistency to date is promising.
Almora’s name has come up frequently in the great leadoff hitter debate, as the Cubs still haven’t settled on any one player taking the mantle on a regular basis. Schwarber and Happ have had their turns leading off, and neither fared as well as hoped. Almora has had eight starts as the leadoff hitter this season, with a .378 average and .911 OPS.
Perhaps the next test for Almora will be regular starts at the first spot in the lineup. His last three starts at lead-off were versus right-handed pitchers, and he has drastically improved his hitting against this type of pitching. Almora has a slash line of .306/.366/.388 in 85 at bats versus righties, compared to .271/.291/.420 for all of 2017. Almora has always fared well against left-handed pitching, but the ability to become more selective at the plate against righties is a great indicator of his commitment to growth.
Almora is likely to see more starts at lead-off with this recent success. He has started all but two of his games in center field. Schwarber has started all but one of his games in left (the one outlier being a designated hitter start versus the Cleveland Indians on April 24). Happ has gotten starts at all three outfield positions, but has started most often at left or center, with 14 games each. The right field spot is pretty safe with five-time Gold Glove winner, Heyward.
Happ has also been red hot at the plate, so it wouldn’t make sense to take him out of the lineup in favor of Almora. Schwarber likely does not have the speed to cover center, so the question of how to get everyone adequate starts remains up in the air. The rotating outfield isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as each player is still seeing fair time and the platooning allows the Cubs to stay rested. If any injuries arise, at least there are plenty of options for Maddon to choose from.
Almora’s marked improvement is hard to ignore. Nothing is guaranteed in baseball, and more starts mean more chances for pitchers to figure him out. He’s only 24 years old and in his third season in the majors, and has the maturity to continue to develop his eye at the plate and agility in the field. It doesn’t seem that Maddon will change his revolving lineup strategy any time soon, but the Cubs are lucky to have yet another formidable asset in Almora to add to the mix.
The Cubs open the second half with a win
The Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the opener of their five-game series on Thursday night, rallying from an early deficit to win 9-6. In the first segment, I looked back on that game for a brief moment and previewed the pitching matchup in Friday’s game. In the second segment, Evan Altman of Cubs Insider joined me to talk more in depth about Thurdsay’s victory, the Cardinals, Jason Heyward, and several other pertinent topics.
In the final segment, we fielded a question from a listener — that we pretty loosely answered — and talked about a new addition to the bullpen. Welcome to Chicago, former Texas Rangers reliever Jesse Chavez!
Will the Cubs run out of gas by the playoffs?
As the Cubs head out of the All-Star break, their fortunes for the 2018 season seem to be in good shape.
A late spurt just before the mid-season classic coupled with a sudden cold spell by their chief rivals have given the Cubs the best record in the National League by 2.5 games in the standings.
The Cubs also have one of the most favorable schedules down the stretch, with only 37 games remaining against opponents that currently have winning records. That’s tied for third-best among all NL teams with a winning record.
But there are concerns, and it starts with the schedule. Out of all the contending teams, the Cubs will have the most blistering pace in the last half of the season, having to play 69 games in only 74 days.
That starts tonight against the St. Louis Cardinals, in a span where they will play 21 games in 20 days.
With only six scheduled days off until the end of the season, the Cubs are tied with the Atlanta Braves for the least amount among the 10 teams with winning records. By comparison, the Milwaukee Brewers will play only 64 games for the remainder of the season and will have 11 scheduled off days.
Of all the teams contending for the playoffs in the NL, the Philadelphia Phillies may have the easiest route with 67 games remaining, 33 against teams with winning records, and eight days off scheduled.
And although the Cardinals are experiencing troubles, they have the second-softest road with 68 games, 36 against winning opponents, and seven off days.
That kind of schedule will push many players on the Cubs roster up to or past their previous limits. Albert Almora, Javier Baéz, Willson Contreras, Ian Happ, and Kyle Schwarber are all on pace to set career-highs in at-bats, while pitchers Tyler Chatwood, Mike Montgomery, and Brandon Morrow will all be close to or surpass career-highs in either appearances or innings pitched.
At this point, no one can be sure just how their production will be affected as the season wears on.
During this string of three straight postseason appearances, the Cubs have used there deep minor league system to either bring relief to the major league roster, create a spark of energy, or provide extra help as part of a trade.
From 2015 through 2017, the Cubs have used on an average of 47 players a season, with an average of 31 making a significant contribution (defined as 25 or more games for a position player, and 15 or more appearances for a pitcher).
Up to this point, the Cubs have used 39 players, 25 with significant contributions.
The Cubs could be hoping that players such as David Bote, Victor Caratini, and James Norwood are ready to step up and provide that spark, but there seems to be no one behind them ready to contribute if those players do not.
There are some that may hold out hope that veteran Chris Coghlan can lend a hand, but a 33-year-old batting only .146 in Triple-A might not be able to flip the switch if given a chance to return to the majors.
Over the past three seasons, the Cubs have used a flurry of trades involving their minor league players to bolster their major league roster. Unfortunately, they received practically no additional developmental talent in return.
That, combined with a loss of draft picks in 2016 and international signing restrictions, has combined to deplete the Cubs’ minor league resources. While they have talented players such as catcher Miguel Amaya and pitchers Cory Abbott and Keegan Thompson that may pique some interest, don’t expect teams to line up in order to deal the Cubs a potential difference maker for those players’ distant promise.
So as the trade deadline nears, keen interest should be had as to how the Cubs address this situation. Does the front office have the courage to deal a fairly significant major league player in order to supply reinforcements?
Will they try to scrape together something from their ramshackle minor league system and make the best of it?
Or will they stand pat and hope that injured players like Kris Bryant and Yu Darvish come back rejuvenated while their replacements hopefully continue to contribute at a high level?
If they aren’t careful, the Cubs could come out of the gate in the playoffs gasping rather than swinging.
Wait, could the Cubs trade for Jacob deGrom after all?
The Cubs are back in action today, taking on the St. Louis Cardinals and their new manager, Mike Shildt. Sean Sears and I previewed the game, which Sean will be attending as credentialed media for the first time. The game will feature Kyle Hendricks against Carlos Martinez. In the second segment, we looked at a piece Jesse Rogers wrote for ESPN that tried to pinpoint what a Cubs trade for Jacob deGrom might look like. Is it more favorable than we originally thought?
Given this new information, we came to the conclusion that the Cubs are definitely, 100% trading for deGrom. No question, done deal. In the final segment, we briefly discussed the results of a poll from the @LockedOnCubs Twitter account and I made puns relating to Brad Hand‘s name.