Put Me in, Coach: Albert Almora Ready to Play Centerfield, Needs to More Often

This isn’t the way it was supposed to play out for Albert Almora Jr., who was expected to be the everyday centerfielder following the departure of Dexter Fowler. First it was Jon Jay forcing himself into the lineup with timely hitting and not-awful play in center. Then it was the Ian Happ coming up and hitting everything in site, ensuring that his name remained on the lineup card on a daily basis.

“Hey, this is a team game, so I don’t think [Happ playing center] is a humbling experience for me,” Almora told the hosts of 670 The Score’s Spiegel and Parkins Show. “No, this is not about me. This is about the Chicago Cubs and we want the best nine out there every day to contribute for a win, and whatever Skip puts out there, then that’s what we gotta go with. I mean, it’s pretty simple for me, man. I’m not that type of guy, like ‘Oh no.’ Obviously, I’m a competitor, I wanna play, I wanna help.

“But whatever my job is that day, if it’s to come off the bench and try to contribute off the bench, so be it. This is not about me, this is about the team, and I’m just happy to be part of such a great organization.”

That came just a few days after Joe Maddon had shared his desire to get his young outfielder more time when he appeared on that same radio program.

“Albert’s playing great and he hasn’t had that opportunity so we need to get him out there,” Maddon admitted. “For me to expect Albert to play well without playing him, that’s a bad assumption. I’m doing what I want to do today, but we have a roster right now that you want to play guys more often but there’s not enough room.”

At the time of Maddon’s words, Almora had made only four starts in the nine games for which Happ had been on the roster. The rookie was hitting .323/.417/.710 with two homers, eight runs scored, and a 191 wRC+, so it’s hard to argue that the (slightly) elder statesman should have been getting more run. In the 12 games since Maddon discussed how agonizing it is to make out a lineup with this roster, however, Almora has made only two starts.

He’s made a grand total of 10 plate appearances in that time, three of which have come as a pinch hitter. And in his most recent game on June 2, Almora was but a decoy, announced as a pinch hitter for Kyle Schwarber and summarily swapped for Jay when the Cardinals went with a right-handed pitcher. By all accounts, Almora has been reduced to a John Fogerty refrain (as in the title), a forgotten man who’s been overshadowed by a veteran — who’s gotten 14 plate appearances during the date range in question — and a rookie.

The latter upstart would be more understandable had Happ continued his torrid early pace, but he hasn’t. Not even close. Since that aforementioned slash line, the rookie has gone .114/.205/.143 with a wRC+ of -2, an ISO of .029, and a 41 percent strikeout rate. That, my friends, is very bad. For all the clanging cymbals calling for Schwarber to be demoted, there should be at least a couple sounding gongs banging out Happ’s name.

I should note here that Almora hasn’t exactly been tearing the cover off the ball, either. His wRC+ over the sample we’re looking is only 1, but we’re also talking about 10 plate appearances. That’s hardly something from which we can draw conclusions. Even his .257/.312/.366 season marks are strictly pedestrian, but that’s not really what you’ve got him there for.

In order to argue for Almora’s increased usage, then, we must look at what he does better than Happ, namely defense and making contact. The former facet is relatively self-explanatory, so I’ll leave it be for now. I understand that Maddon has used the leadoff spot to jump-start struggling hitters, and that he would even put Evan Longoria there during his days in Tampa, but there’s nothing I like about putting Happ at one. An anemic 61 percent contact rate and a 20.4 percent swinging-strike rate just aren’t going to get it done when you’re playing table-setter.

Almora, on the other hand, has a contact rate north of 78 percent and a swinging-strike rate of 10.5 percent that is nearly half of Happ’s. Mind you, I’m not making the case for Almora to be leading off, though his 7.3 percent walk rate is higher than he’s ever put up in professional ball. Rather, I’m saying that neither should be at the top of the order and that Almora should be seeing more time than he has been.

Truth be told, I really believe Happ needs to head back to AAA to refine his approach a bit and work on laying off the high heat. Between Ben Zobrist and Javy Baez, not to mention Kris Bryant and even Willson Contreras, the roster would still have plenty of flexibility when it comes to filling in for injuries or platoons. And calling up a lesser prospect like Mark Zagunis or John Andreoli would allow Maddon to fill out his lineup card without pressing as much to get everyone equitable time.

I’ll wrap this up now because I fear I’ve gone a bit further than my intended point and have made this an anti-Happ piece. That wasn’t my intent, though I understand if it reads that way. My only real goal here was to point to Almora sitting there languishing on the bench and ask simply, “What gives?” That’s because I believe having Almora in there more often gives the Cubs a better chance to win.

Given the struggles they’ve had to score runs, particularly with men in scoring position, I have to think a contact hitter would be a nice thing to have at the bottom of the order. Who knows, maybe he’d have grounded into the same double play the Cubs got from Jay in that bases-loaded situation Friday. But at least we’d have been able to see it happen instead of just speculating on how it would have played out.

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