Shepkowski: Don’t Forget About Albert Almora

By Nick Shepkowski–

(CBS) I’ve no idea how seriously the Cubs involved in the Jason Heyward sweepstakes and, if they are, how deep in their pockets they’re willing to go to land the biggest name left on MLB’s free-agent market as the Winter Meetings continue in Nashville. I just know he’s a special player.

In looking at Heyward, you find one of the best defensive outfielders in the game and a player who gets on base at a .360 clip for his career while averaging more than 45 extra base-hits per season.

He’s a stud and regardless of money, he’ll immediately make whoever he signs with a better baseball team in 2016. Because he entered the big leagues at just 20, Heyward’s a rare example of a free agent who will probably sign a six- or seven-year deal for his age 26-33 seasons. He’s right in the heart of his prime, and he’s going to get maximum money, no doubt. Match him with the young core that the Cubs already have and who knows what this 97-win team of 2015 could accomplish moving forward.

But even if the Cubs are severely outbid for his services or if Heyward simply has somewhere else he desires more, it’s not the worst development in the world for the Cubs. Like any good and talent-loaded organization, the Cubs are deep and aren’t dependent on any one free agent signing a long-term deal.

This is where “The Breakfast Club” pops into my mind, and I immediately start humming “Don’t You” by The Simple Minds to myself.

The Cubs have internal options. Albert Almora was the sixth overall pick by the Cubs in 2012, the first draft choice made with the Cubs president of baseball operation Theo Epstein. From Day 1, the Cubs have been high on what Almora brings to the table, both on the field and off of it. They remain invested in him.

“If you look at the total package of Albert, he has the ability to no doubt play in the major leagues, but it’s also the makeup and work ethic, how he carries himself and the leadership he’s shown,” vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod said back in 2012. “It’s what we’re looking to do here with the Cubs — to bring in somebody that will be an impact player and to impact those around him.”  

In the wake of the instant big league success of Cubs rookies Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant — who each played college baseball — Almora is almost an afterthought to the casual observer at this point. Fans get caught in the moment from time to time, as do team executives and media members alike, but just because Heyward is available and the Cubs may be in hot pursuit of him, don’t think for a second that the shine has worn off on the 21-year-old Almora.

At Double-A Tennessee in 2015, Almora stumbled out of the gate offensively, hitting just .244 with a .285 on-base percentage in the season’s first half. His glove that came with big hype was still seen as stellar, but his bat hadn’t improved like many had hoped.

Or at least it had seemed. In the second half of the season, Almora improved greatly, batting .301 with a .370 on-base percentage. He finished with a .272 average and .327 on-base percentage.

If Almora’s glove really is as good as the hype that comes with it, he’s still the Cubs’ center fielder of the future, regardless if Heyward ends up in Chicago or not.

With an offense built around the likes of Anthony Rizzo (31 homers in 2015), Bryant (26 homers) and Schwarber (16 homers in just 69 games), not everyone needs to be a power hitter. Hell, not everyone has to be a good hitter, even in terms of batting average and on-base percentages.

Almora isn’t expected to be any great shakes offensively — he never has been and probably never will be. But if he ends up being a .240 batter with a .290 on-base percentage and an 8-12 home run guy at the big league level, it’ll be more than made up for elsewhere, because his glove right now is among the most highly regarded in all of the minors.

We’ve heard about Almora for a good three-and-a-half years now, so I get why people start to question what he may eventually do for the big league club. And I get that offensive numbers are what’s sexy when evaluating a baseball player and that nothing offensively jumps off the back of Almora’s minor league baseball card. However, he’s still an enormous part of this regime’s plan going forward.

Just envision the position players for a minute: Rizzo at first, Javier Baez/Starlin Castro at second, Addison Russell at shortstop, Bryant at third, Schwarber in left and Almora in center in the 2018 Opening Day lineup.

Sounds great to me.

And even that much more if Jason Heyward is playing right field.

Nick Shepkowski is a weekend host at 670 The Score and produces The Spiegel and Goff Show each weekday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.  You can find all of his work here and follow him on Twitter @Shep670.

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