Assuming Albert Almora Jr. Is Back with Cubs in 2020, What’s His Role?
Let’s this out of the way first: There’s no role for the 2019 version of Albert Almora Jr. on the 2020 Cubs roster. Despite what his numerous stans might have you believe, Almora was truly dreadful last year. A combination of a 64 wRC+ and surprisingly bad center field defense added up to a -0.7 fWAR that made him one of the least valuable players in baseball. Contenders can’t burn roster spots on guys who’re actively hurting the team.
However, there are rumblings that the front office prefers to keep ($) the first draft pick of their tenure in the organization rather than non-tendering him this offseason. It’s not an expensive gamble, as Almora is projected to get a raise to $1.8 million for next season, but a team that has publicly discussed its budget consciousness needs to watch every expenditure.
Rather than focus on the the potential pitfalls of bringing Almora back and hoping he’s able to perform at a much higher level, let’s look at how the Cubs can ensure his relative success.
It’s pretty clear that the solution cannot simply be to give him more consistent playing time, something his biggest supporters have often cited as a reason for his stunted development. Whether it’s the potential pursuit of Shogo Akiyama or even giving Nico Hoerner some time in center, it seems clear the Cubs are looking for different solutions in center.
That means being judicious with Almora by putting him in situations where he has the very best chance of being productive. Joe Maddon actively disregarded such dynamic deployment in 2019, chalking Almora’s success against righties up to small-sample luck. For him to be successful going forward, David Ross and the Cubs have to be willing to shift their strategy to fit what Almora’s doing well. It won’t hurt if that means he’s left-handed pitching and playing productive defense in center.
Prior to last year’s disastrous results, Almora had fairly consistently been able to hold his own against southpaws, recording wRC+ splits of 136 and 101 in 2017 and 2018, respectively. In 2019, however, he posted a 37 wRC+ against lefties, 73% worse than the average hitter. If he can return to just a league-average level in that regard, there is a absolutely a role for him on a winning major league roster.
Do I think that means he should start a majority of the Cubs’ games against lefties? Not so much, since a season as bad as he just finished necessitates a total reevaluation of his abilities. Getting the occasional start and some low-leverage pinch-hitting opportunities against vulnerable pitchers represents one potential confidence-building niche for Almora in 2020.
Defense was the primary skillset he had previously demonstrated at the major league level, and we’ve seen plenty of players who could make up for offense with defense. While he struggled mightily in center last year, he has rated as a positive defender in each of his other major league campaigns and could very possibly regain that form moving forward.
While narrowing his role to bench player fit for very limited situational deployment surely wasn’t the role Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer envisioned for Almora, it’s not without value. The Cubs have seen the need for fringe players with specific duties and skills, and the expanded 26-man roster in 2020 means that much more room for a specialty player.
There’s one other aspect to this whole thing that many have dismissed but that nonetheless bears a little attention. Almora’s production appeared to suffer significantly after a foul ball from his bat struck a young fan in Houston. Baseball can be as much a mental game as it is physical, so it’s not beyond reason to think that Almora may have been shaken to the point that it affected his game at the plate and in the field. Taking a break over the winter and then being brought along slowly could rebuild that lost confidence.
In short, the version of Almora Cubs fans saw from 2016-18 has a meaningful role to play on a major league roster. While 2019 may have dashed the idea his future is as an everyday player, there’s a strong argument that it shouldn’t erase the numerous things he has done well and still could do well in the future.