The Chicago Cubs ended the more than 70-year old “Curse of the Billy Goat” by powering their way to a 2016 World Series championship.
A group of talented and youthful position players were keys in making that title possible.
There were a pair of 26-year old players serving as virtual senior citizens in first baseman Anthony Rizzo and right fielder Jason Heyward.
In left field, 24-year old Jorge Soler and 26-year old Matt Szczur saw a lot of playing time. 23-year old Javier Baez was a super-utility guy, playing all over the diamond. The shortstop was 22-year old Addison Russell.
23-year old Willson Contreras largely took over the catching duties by the second half. Another 23-year old, Kyle Schwarber, missed the entire regular season due to injuries. But he returned in time to influence the postseason.
The featured player was 24-year old third baseman Kris Bryant. All he did was take home the NL Most Valuable Player award after winning NL Rookie of the Year the previous season.
On June 7, a rookie outfielder made his debut. Albert Almora would stay with the team through mid-July, then return in September. He made enough of a positive impression that he was kept on the postseason roster by manager Joe Maddon.
Almora hit for a .277/.308/.455 slash line with three homers and 14 RBI over 117 regular season plate appearances. He then went hitless in the postseason.
But then in Game 7 of the World Series vs the Cleveland Indians, Almora had his big moment. He was called on to pinch-run for Schwarber, who had led off the top of the 10th inning of a 6-6 game with a single.
Almora moved to second base on a fly ball. Then with one out, Ben Zobrist drilled a ground double to left field. The speedy Almora flew around third and came home to score the go-ahead run.
The Cubs would tack on one more, which would prove vital when the Tribe came back to score one in the bottom of the 10th. Chicago would hang on to capture the Fall Classic for the first time since 1908.
Now as spring training is underway and the Cubs prepare for defense of a world championship for the first time in more than a century, things have changed for the speedy Almora.
This year, he is penned in as the starting center fielder. He will be replacing veteran Dexter Fowler, who left for the arch-rival Saint Louis Cardinals. And the expectations for Almora are high.
Earlier this week, Paul Skrbina of the Chicago Tribune wrote a piece on Almora. In it, Skrbina quoted Bryant:
“He’s a star in the making. Everybody has seen what he can do, what he’s going to give you on defense. More importantly, you know he’s … going to play his heart out every single day.” ~ Bryant
So far this spring, Almora has been doing his part, continuing to play stellar defense. In his 41 games played last season, Almora didn’t make a single error.
Offensively, he is not expected to become a big contributor. He had just 24 home runs, 100 doubles, 16 triples, and 33 steals in 1,733 minor league plate appearances.
However, he was a .290 hitter in the minors, striking out just 203 times. A classic “contact” hitter in an already powerful lineup, he just needs to chip in now and then. He is certainly more than capable of filling the role.
So far this spring, Almora is hitting .313, and recently chipped in with a grand slam. He is getting plenty of chances. His 32 plate appearances in the Cactus League are tied for second on the club.
A week ago, Tony Andracki with CSN Chicago wrote on the team’s attempts to tap into Almora’s offensive upside potential. In the piece, Andracki quoted a confident Almora:
“I feel like personally, there’s a lot more improvement for myself of the player I can become. So it’s going out there and play, let it happen.”
While Almora is likely to never be more than a complimentary bat in the Cubs lineup, that is all he needs to be. His defensive ability is going to save the Chicago pitching staff a ton of runs.
The Cubs have amassed an enviable collection of good, young players. The odds are that his is just the beginning of a long run of success. Starting in 2017, Almora should prove a key piece on many winning North Side teams in the years to come.