Albert Almora has always carried himself with confidence. However, due perhaps to falling further in the draft than he had hoped or losing much of the past season to injury, Almora now seems to have developed a chip on his shoulder. Gone is the quiet, soft-spoken kid from the summer. Almora is anything but, possessing a boldness that a team coming off its third straight 90-loss season needs.
After suffering through a pair of rough seasons under a regime that initially instilled much hope, Chicago Cubs fans are growing weary of the poor play they’re witnessing on the field. Maybe even more tiresome to a few are the constant refrain of patience and the reminders that the Cubs' highly rated farm system will be pumping top talent up to the big leagues in the very near future.
There are plenty who are ready to start questioning whether the complete rebuild of the organization that team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and the rest of the Cubs front office have overseen will really lead to sustained success on the North Side.
Almora is not one of those people.
“You can tell when everything is going in the right direction,” Almora recently said prior to participating in an Arizona Fall League game. “That’s the first thing everyone in the organization put in our heads: winning a World Series is going to happen. It’s not an ‘if,’ it’s a ‘when.’”
Almora, who suffered through multiple injuries this summer during his first full season of professional baseball with the Kane County Cougars, appears to be playing in the AFL with something to prove. Though he’s the second youngest player in the league, Almora has posted a .286/.340/.531 line in 13 games and is playing his usual outstanding defense all over the outfield. Despite playing no higher than low-A in his career, Almora appears to be undaunted by the task of facing pitchers who are both older and more experienced.
“To be honest, I’m confident in my game,” Almora said. “I’m not trying to sound cocky or arrogant here, but it’s the same game, the pitchers are just smarter. They throw a little harder than what I’m used to seeing, but after a week of 98 (mph) every day... I’m not saying it’s easy, but you see it better. As a player, I might be 19, but I’m ready, I’m ready to play against all these guys. Age is nothing but a number. I feel like I’m capable of playing and my baseball IQ is the same as these guys'.”
Almora’s impressive numbers helped earn him an appearance in this past Saturday’s Fall Stars game. His Mesa Solar Sox teammates and fellow Cubs prospects Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant both joined him on the roster.
“Those guys are monsters,” Almora said of Bryant and Soler. “I’m lucky to be in the same organization and not have to face them. There are a lot of guys here that say, ‘Man, we’re going to have face these guys today?’”
Almora added that the trio has gotten along well off the field, forming a natural bond that the Cubs hope carries through to the big leagues.
“This Cubs organization now is a big family. Those two guys are great guys,” Almora said. “Soler is like a big teddy bear, he’s a great guy and he always has a smile on his face. And Bryant’s a big goofball too, we get along wonderful. We went mini-golfing the other day and had a lot of fun. We’re great on and off the field, it’s not just business.”
Do the three discuss the chance that they could all be playing together at Wrigley in the not so distant future? According to Almora, their goals aren’t set so low.
“Our focus is the World Series,” Almora said. “That’s our goal at the end of the day, whenever it happens, but it’s gonna happen. This organization is going to have that ring in the near future. We’re working really hard to get there.”
Many expect the Cubs' top prospect, Javier Baez, to arrive at Wrigley in 2014, with Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in last summer’s amateur draft, possibly close behind. A reasonable expectation for Soler and Almora, who both saw their development stymied by injuries this season, would be sometime in 2015.
But Almora doesn’t care for those predictions.
“You say 2015 for me and Soler, but if they call our names tomorrow, it’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m not going to be scared of the challenge of being up there. If they think that we’re ready and they want to win a World Series, let’s go.”
While the Cubs' minor league system is clearly weighted towards the offensive side at the top, Almora knows there’s pitching on the farm as well. Almora played with Pierce Johnson at Kane County before Johnson ended the season winning the Florida State League championship with High-A Daytona, a team headlined by its strong rotation, with Johnson, C.J. Edwards and Corey Black leading the way.
Scouts will rattle off names like Paul Blackburn and Tyler Skulina when mentioning pitchers who could break out for the Cubs in the coming years. The Cubs' strategy of drafting and acquiring power arms in bulk over the past two seasons should start paying off in the near future in both the starting rotation and the bullpen.
Almora has never doubted the process.
“Theo, (VP of scouting and player development) Jason (McLeod) and Jed, they all know what they’re doing,” Almora said. “They’re not just forming an offensive-crazy lineup, they’re doing it all. From pitching, to coaching, to everything, they’re doing it right. It’s just a matter of time when everything explodes in Chicago. The winning starts and the championships start coming.”
Prior to Anthony Rizzo's arrival in Chicago, the hype got a little out of hand for the Cubs first baseman, who those in the industry believe has a high floor due to his impeccable work ethic, but a lower ceiling than a star, viewing him as more of an above average player who could develop into a leader in the clubhouse. The Cubs' current quartet of prospects are all rated higher than Rizzo ever was and as they continue to climb the ranks, the inevitable hype is bound to come for them as well. But Almora says he’ll embrace that challenge when it comes.
“Hype or no hype, you still have to strap your cleats on and play this game,” Almora said. “If there’s hype, hey, bring it on, I love it. It gives me reason to work harder every day and to come and be the best that there is.”
It’s clear that restless Cubs fans are are ready for more than just hype, they’re hungry for wins. But it’s not just the fans who are ready for things to change on the field -- Almora is sick of the poor results as well.
“I said one thing to the Chicago Cubs when they drafted me, I said I’m going to prove those other five teams that passed me up in the draft wrong,” Almora said. “I’m gonna do all in my heart and my soul to get you that World Series ring. I’m tired of the organization not winning and I’m not even there. That’s just the competitor that I am.”
Almora’s outspoken attitude may seem brash to some, but it’s not the type of confidence that often rubs others the wrong way, but rather the kind that coaches and teammates embrace. It should be a breath of fresh air and maybe just the right demeanor to help turn things around at Wrigley.