Ever since he left in free agency for the second time, and without the happy spring training reunion, the Cubs have been searching for the next Dexter Fowler. I was among the many concerned about how the Cubs would go about replacing Fowler when they let him walk last off-season.
Turns out he was lying around all along.
It hasn’t always been obvious, though, and I’ll admit that I thought putting Kyle Schwarber at the top of the lineup last season just might be crazy enough to work. I also agreed with the decision to put Ian Happ in the leadoff spot this year.
That wasn’t just Joe Maddon being wacky, either. Theo Epstein was very high on Happ this spring, pointing to him as the next player likely to break out like Willson Contreras did last season. At the same time, I could never really buy Happ as a center fielder on a championship club.
For me, an outfield with Schwarber and Happ playing next to each other is just not getting it done, especially for a starting rotation that hasn’t exactly been nails. Now, I am not advocating for the Cubs to give up on Happ, I’m just pointing out that he has warts.
An evaluator recently told me that Happ is still vulnerable on the outside portion of the plate when hitting left-handed, and the Cubs are working hard to fix those holes in his swing. We saw how Schwarber fought through struggles that may or may not have stemmed from his spot in the order, so maybe Happ can do the same.
No matter what happens with his growth, I just don’t want to see Happ take at-bats and innings in center away from Almora. Let him spell the regulars in the corners while he works through his issues.
So here we are well over a year removed from Fowler’s departure for the bigger green of the Redbirds and the Cubs have twice entered the season with a short-lived leadoff hitter. Yes, they still scored over 800 runs last year and advanced to their third straight NLCS, but they did it with a maddeningly inconsistent offense.
They could break out for 10 runs or get shut out at any time it seemed. When they had trouble scoring, they looked lifeless. I personally don’t believe the Cubs offense was very fun to watch last year or even this season up until recently.
Things changed when Maddon plugged Almora and Javy Baez in atop the lineup. The last four games of Almora and Baez batting first and second have seen the pair go a combined 17-for-41 with 12 runs. Now, as Lauren Comitor pointed out in her feature for The Athletic’s Monday newsletter, this duo isn’t likely to maintain these torrid numbers moving forward.
Regardless, I do feel these two bring something to the top of the lineup that can’t be quantified: Energy.
When Epstein and Jed Hoyer tried to put the finishing touches on this team prior to the 2016 season, they sought out hitters like Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward to complement Dexter Fowler and insulate a lineup that had a major boom or bust factor to it. With Heyward scuffling through most of his time in Chicago and Zobrist battling age and injuries, the Cubs have missed the different look that Almora can provide.
Make no mistake, Almora’s OBP will probably never be up there with the .367 Fowler posted in two years with the Cubs, but he does bring some of that spark that has been missing since Game 7. Almora also helps bring back the strong defensive identity that was so integral to the Cubs winning a championship.
Simply put, Almora is turning into a glue guy. He may or may or not be the primary leadoff hitter for the long term, but he brings to the table a few things the Cubs have been missing. Maddon recently pointed out how Baez does something in different phases to help you win on a daily basis.
For the very the same reasons Maddon decided that Baez needed to be an everyday player, he should know that Almora is capable of doing the same.