Chicago Cubs fans will tell you that the trouncing they received in the NLCS was less than ideal. If Albert Almora progresses this season, will that make all the difference?
Due to the platoon he was a member of last season, Almora did not receive a full season of plate appearances. He stepped up 323 times — roughly half as many times as the big bats at the top of the Cubs’ order. But what makes Almora so intriguing is how productive he was during his limited time on the field. Ian Happ also showed flashes during last season, but it is worth wondering if he has shown everything already.
While Almora’s bat was exceptional in 2017, it’s important to not forget his contributions out in center field. Having only committed one error, his fielding percentage of .994 was among the top on the Cubs. That number trailed only Jon Jay and Anthony Rizzo among players who logged over 200 innings.
Assuming he is given additional time in the field this year, he should be able to continue contributing defensively. It’s nice to have someone who is consistent at the plate, but it is doubly satisfying when they pull their weight on the field. Keeping a bad glove in the lineup because of their batting skills is a major handicap in the National League.
Almora was able to come away with 89 hits in his 323 plate appearances last season, with an average of .298. Looking at his history, we can presume that if he is given more plate appearances this season, he won’t hit for that high of an average. But Almora’s past performance also tells us that he may come close.
His first two seasons in the majors demonstrate a promising trend of higher production the more he is used. He was a fill-in role player in 2016 and provided modest offensive contributions. As he took on more responsibility in 2017, he provided more offensive production. If the Cubs move him into a more concrete role in 2018, their success could depend on how he handles the extra at-bats.
From 2016 to 2017, Almora saw increases in almost every major batting metric. He improved his batting average, OBP, and OPS. You could chalk this up to his lack of professional experience in 2016. You could also credit his progression as an athlete. Few batters reach their full potential in their first two seasons. Even if he just progresses naturally into 2018, the Cubs will reap additional production.
Barring any sort of injury or major regression, the above appears to be the floor for Almora in 2018. But no one enters a season expecting players to maintain the status quo. You expect growth, you expect improvement. If Almora is the starting center fielder, he needs to continue his statistical climb. He needs to get on base more than he did in 2017. He needs to steal more bases. 2017 was solid, but adding to his game can only help the Cubs.
It may not seem like one player can markedly change the trajectory of a team, but every team has an X-Factor. Let’s assume the Cubs’ offense (excluding Almora) stays the same. Stats remain in line with 2017, players perform similarly. If Almora takes the next step and moves up in the lineup, that boost could be what the Cubs need. It could propel them to contending for a World Series again this year.