Cubs prospect Almora steadily maturing
Outfielder focused on improving his consistency at the plate
MESA, Ariz. -- Albert Almora was like most fans watching the baseball playoffs, getting goosebumps from the late-inning drama and close games. The Cubs' prospect had a rooting interest as his cousin, Manny Machado, was playing for the Orioles.
"We're not really blood cousins," Almora said. "Our first baseball practice, we were together, and we grew up together, and we call each other 'Cousin.' That's the way it's known in the baseball world is that we're cousins."
Machado and the Orioles won the American League Wild Card playoff game against the Rangers, but they were ousted in the AL Division Series by the Yankees. Almora was keeping an eye on his cousin while in Arizona for the Cubs' instructional league last month. Machado and Almora would send text messages every day. Could Almora see himself in the postseason someday with the Cubs?
"We have to let it play out," Almora said. "Hopefully, I'll be up there soon, like he was. He made it up super quick, like a year and a half. Of course, I want to be there now -- who doesn't?"
Almora isn't ready yet. Theo Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations, and general manager Jed Hoyer are attending the General Managers Meetings this week in Palm Springs, Calif., and will continue talks with agents and teams in their search to find another outfielder. Almora does have a unique spot in Cubs history.
"I was watching the [First-Year Player] Draft video a couple days ago, and they were saying, 'Oh, Theo Epstein's first pick,' and I was like, 'That's pretty special,'" Almora said after a workout in Mesa. "I'm a part of a special family here."
Almora is the future, but Cubs manager Dale Sveum told the teen that he's close to being part of the present. The two met during a workout at Wrigley Field in October.
"[Sveum] said, 'You're ready here in the outfield," Almora said. "We just want to get you more mature at the plate."
What does he need to do?
"Everything," Almora said. "I just have to mature as a player. It's different from high school, it's a different mentality. I just have to go out and get better every day."
Almora, ranked No. 2 in the Cubs' system by MLB.com, got off to a good start, batting .347 in 18 games in the Arizona Rookie League, and then hitting .292 in 15 games with Class A Boise.
"A big part of what we're working with is his consistency in his approach at the plate," said Jason McLeod, the Cubs' scouting and player development director. "He's competed in his at-bats, but at the same time, he was very aggressive and getting himself out early in counts.
"He has good hand-eye coordination, so he makes a lot of contact," McLeod said. "We're talking to him, telling him, 'Look for that pitch to drive. You don't have to swing at the first pitch.' ... He wants to go up there and swing the bat and make things happen early. It's being patient, waiting for a pitch you can drive and being consistent with that approach."
Almora, who turns 19 on April 16, already has an impressive resume, having competed for Team USA since 2009. That year, he was ranked No. 1 in the world by USA Baseball. Not many teens play in Taiwan, or face Cuban teams. He has.
"USA definitely helped me mature and deal with adversity," Almora said. "It helped me grow up pretty fast. We went to different countries and they tried to do everything to not mentally prepare you to win. We had to deal with a lot of stuff."
"They'd give us our clothes back all wet," he said. "We weren't getting our food -- it wasn't good food."
Damp uniforms and lousy meals can certainly affect a team. Almora shrugged it off.
"He's a kid who was challenged at a young age," said Tom Beyers, Cubs Minor League hitting coordinator. "He got an opportunity to play at levels where he's been trained already in how to handle himself in pro ball, just being in the Olympic situations and playing in front of crowds and playing with older guys. He's got a pretty good idea on how the game is played. He's very similar to [Cubs 2011 No. 1 pick Javier] Baez -- the same thing on the aptitude side of things. [Almora is a] quick learner, understands what he wants to do at the plate."
Almora also is confident about his defensive ability.
"I think I can play center field with the best of them," Almora said. "I'm not being cocky, I'm just confident in my abilities and I've worked super hard to be one of the best in the outfield. I definitely take that into consideration."
Almora's visit to Wrigley Field in September was emotional, and not just because he projected himself there someday. His parents, girlfriend, and an aunt and uncle accompanied him to Chicago. But there were two people missing. Almora's grandparents passed away nine days apart last December. They'd been together 75 years.
Almora was playing for USA Baseball when his grandmother died.
"She just took [my grandfather] with her," he said softly. "I didn't know anything until I came back. Everybody knew in USA [Baseball] -- the coaches knew -- and they thought it was best to wait. There was nothing I could do."
When he was selected on Draft day by the Cubs, Almora's mother, Ana, grabbed a photo of her parents, his grandparents, and hugged it. Those emotions carried over to Wrigley.
"It's hard to be calm," he said about his whirlwind tour of Wrigley. "There's so much history in that ballpark. Hitting there -- I was super shocked. I was in awe, most of the time. At the end, I was watching the game, and calmed down and started soaking it in."
And thinking about when he'll be roaming center field in the big leagues.
"I'm ready for the challenge and ready to be up there," Almora said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.