Sunday, July 20, 2014

Why Albert Almora is the Cubs' Most Important Prospect

With the 6th overall pick in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer selected Albert Almora as their first pick as members of the Chicago Cubs' front office. Almora, a 6'2" 172 lbs. center fielder out of Mater Academy Charter School in Hialeah Gardens, Florida, was viewed as having incredible fielding instincts and ability, exceptional power for his small frame, and unparalleled leadership. In his third year of professional ball, Cubs fans are yet to see his 'exceptional power' come to fruition, but his incredible defensive ability and unparalleled leadership have been on display at every level he's played at. In a farm system brimming with unfathomable offensive talent, Almora's defensive and intangible leadership skills fill an expansive void that none of the Cubs' other top prospects can fill. Almora was only the 2nd high schooler drafted in the 2012 Draft (Byrun Buxton being the first), and he was also drafted before many other top prospects such as Joey Gallo, Lucas Giolito, and the Cubs' very own and recently acquired Addison Russell; however, Almora is more integral to his team's future success than any of those three are to theirs.

The weakest part of Almora's game is his offense, which is saying something considering the fact that the MLB grades Almora's hit tool as a 65, and his power as a 55. On a scale of 20-80, 50 is average, so this means that both elements of his game are above average, his hit tool specifically being well above average. He has an incredibly smooth swing that sprays line drives to all fields, and his power will only increase as he puts on more weight. He has always had success hitting the ball, which is why Almora was starting for his varsity high school team while in 8th grade. He had an incredibly successful high school career, finishing on a strong note by posting a .606 batting average his senior year.

While his hit tool and power are impressive and promising, his BB% is some cause for minor concern. Through his entire amateur career, Almora had never needed to walk before because his excellent bat control allowed him to put any pitch in play. Because of this, his walk rate for the 2014 season is only 3.2% according to Fangraphs. As the future lead-off man for the Chicago Cubs, he'll need to get that BB% much closer to 10%, but if that's the biggest hole in his offensive game, Almora will have a solid offensive career.

As I mentioned before, the Cubs' farm system is unanimously agreed upon as the best offensive farm system in all of baseball. While the implication with that statement is that the Cubs' minor league pitching is lacking, it's also important to realize that the Cubs' farm system lacks impact defensive talent.

In a time when so many scouts and fans are drooling over the offensive production of a certain Kris Bryant, his 75 grade power is at the center of every discussion about the Cubs' future. Seemingly missing from the conversation, however, is the 75 grade defense of Almora (MLB).

It's tough to quantify defensive ability with statistics. It's also tough to put up defensive numbers that impress someone, unless of course, you're throwing out runners from 300 feet away (see Yoenis Cespedes). However, Almora's career minor league .994 fielding percentage is incredibly impressive. If you give Almora a chance to make 100 plays, he will make 99 of them. But what's even more impressive is that he has had 1, and only 1, error each season of his professional career, giving him a grand total of 3 (Baseball Reference). He's only played 176 career games, so that's 3 errors in one full MLB season for all intents and purposes.

Carlos Gonzalez makes a diving catch in 2011
For comparison, Rockies outfielder and 3-time Gold Glove winner, Carlos Gonzalez, has a career fielding percentage of .984 (Baseball Reference). Gonzalez won his first Gold Glove in 2011 after only playing 61 games while making only one error. Through 86 games this year, Almora, too, has 1 error.

While offensive production in the minor leagues can be tainted and warped by any number of extraneous variables, fielding statistics stay extremely consistent. For example, Carlos Gonzalez's career minor league fielding percentage is .964 according to Gonzalez was an excellent fielder in the minors, and when he got to the majors, he got better. So what does that mean for Almora? A .994 fielding percentage is absolutely unfathomable and is the fielding percentage of a Gold Glover, yet Almora can still get better.

Almora is only 20 years old and he is playing defense on par with some of the greatest defensive center fielders of all time (courtesy of Baseball Reference):

If Almora's defensive numbers in the minors were to transition to and even potentially improve in the majors (which is totally reasonable to expect), he will find himself among the greatest defensive center fielders of all time.

Almora making an excellent diving catch for Kane County
Almora's defense makes him incredibly important to the future of the Cubs. When it comes to prospects, defense is the only certainty. There are plenty of "future all-stars" in the minors who can't hit a curve ball. There are plenty of "future aces" who blow out their arms. Barring injury, defense is the only tool that translates exceptionally between the minors and the big leagues, especially at the outfield position. To see a 20 year-old patrol the outfield like he does is truly something to behold. He always seems to do the right thing. His routes to fly balls are run perfectly, his throws are always deadly accurate, and he will never drop a fly ball. Albert Almora's defense is unparalleled by any other outfield prospect, and that makes his worth to the Cubs inestimable.

Now what would you say if I told you that there was one more element to his game that was more important to the Cubs, a tool even greater than his defense?

Well there is.

Albert Almora is a natural-born leader, the likes of which the Cubs have not seen since the days of Gary Matthews and Ryne Sandberg. He has obvious humility. The Sun Times reported him saying, "I’ve won everywhere I’ve been. And not because of me, but because of the teams I’m on. And I want to do that for the Cubs." Despite that humility, Epstein was incredibly impressed by his confidence, "He carried himself like a college kid. He had a real clear idea of his goals. He thought he was the best player in the draft and wanted to get his career started and prove that."

Almora hitting for the Team USA 18-U team.
While it's all fine and dandy to subjectively evaluate Almora's leadership and maturity based off of the quotes of those around him, nothing beats cold hard facts. One of those facts being that he was unanimously agreed upon as the leader of his 6 team USA teams. Yes, 6. Almora starred on the U-14 team when he was 13 and 14, the U-16 team when he was 15 and 16, and the U-18 team when he was 17 and 18. Almora set a record by playing on those 6 teams, but what's even more impressive is that he led every single one of them.

While he was quoted above as saying, "I've won everywhere I've been. And not because of me", a ton of it had to do with Almora. Like Michael Jordan made all of his teammates around him better, so too does Almora increase the competitive level and skill of all of those around him.

In 2016, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and possibly Jorge Soler will have a full year of MLB experience under their belts. Combine those 4 with Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, and the Cubs have 6 probable all-stars. Add Albert Almora to that mix, and the Cubs just added an incredible defensive center fielder, a solid lead-off hitter, and a perfect leader for the Chicago Cubs.

The Yankees had Derek Jeter as a captain for over a decade, but soon...

The Cubs will have Albert Almora.

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