Emma: Cubs Grooming Albert Almora Jr. To Be Their Next Star

By Chris Emma–

CHICAGO (CBS) — Potential, really, is a concept not welcomed inside a big league clubhouse.

For young players looking ahead or veterans glancing back, potential represents parameters to what one can become or was supposed to be. Just as it’s often not met, some can prove to be greater than expected.

Albert Almora Jr., perhaps the next great Cubs kid, appears to have all the potential to be great. He’s striving to be even better.

“I don’t believe the sky’s the limit,” Almora said Tuesday. “I feel like I can keep going.”

Before Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant and even Addison Russell had their names called in the draft and just shy of Anthony Rizzo’s debut in a Cubs uniform, Almora was selected in June 2012 as Theo Epstein’s first top draft pick in Chicago. With Almora then 18 and days away from his high school graduation, the Cubs had a strong belief in his future.

Almora just turned 23 on Sunday. Last year, he got married, welcomed a son to his family, made his major league debut and pinch ran in the 10th inning during Game 7 of the World Series, scoring the go-ahead run to help the Cubs win their first championship in 108 years.

“You can’t write it up any better,” Almora said.

While the Cubs often times look to be a finished product at the big league level — with “The Plan” producing All-Star talents that produced a World Series victory — there’s still another young piece in Almora developing his craft.

His defense has ranged from dependable to outstanding, as displayed early this season; his plate approach is improving, currently with a .450 on-base percentage; his base running is dependable, as Game 7 revealed. Now, repetition is the key for Almora.

The Cubs won’t ever rush a player whose game remains raw. They ensure the development process will be slow and steady at the big league level. Manager Joe Maddon is looking to see Almora improve his patience at the plate. Almora wants to get better with every facet of his game.

Almora could eventually become a five-tool player if his power develops as the Cubs anticipate. Maddon touted it Tuesday, then Almora hit four straight batting practice pitches halfway up the left-field bleachers.

For now, Maddon wants improved at-bats with greater recognition of balls and strikes. This season, Almora is swinging at 32 percent of pitches out of the zone and just 63.9 percent of strikes. It’s the next progression in his game.

After Dexter Fowler departed to St. Louis, the Cubs signed veteran Jon Jay to platoon with Almora. Thirteen games into this season, Almora has made the team better. His slash line this season is .389/.450/.500, and his defense has been excellent. He’s forcing Maddon’s hands to be in the lineup each game.

“Eventually, he’s going to be a starting center fielder,” Maddon said Tuesday. “I don’t know when that’s going to happen, but he will, as long as he keeps doing what he’s doing now.

“Primarily, what you’re looking for from him — which would come with actual playing experience — is just a better method at the plate regarding discerning balls and strikes or organizing his own strike zone.”

Said Almora of his limited playing time: “I just want to stay healthy and help the Chicago Cubs win a lot of baseball games.”

Almora has started just four games this season, with Maddon utilizing lineup versatility with Jay, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez needing to log time in the shuffle at second base, right field and center field. On Monday, Almora lined a two-run double to left field that brought the Cubs even with the Brewers.

On Tuesday, Almora was preparing to come off the bench if needed. He then delivered a pinch-hit, two-run single off the bench in the sixth inning. Selflessness is a part of the Cubs’ championship makeup. Soon enough, he’ll be an everyday player. Almora knows it, and Maddon said it.

Almora isn’t your typical budding star breaking into the big leagues. He’s playing for a wife and newborn son. Baseball can be just a game for him, because Almora said his life has been forever changed.

“In this game, there’s more failure than success,” Almora said. “Coming home, seeing the smile on his face, not caring what you did wrong or what you did right, it definitely changes my outlook on everything.”

Ultimately, Almora could be that next piece of the Cubs’ core, joining the likes of Rizzo, Bryant, Russell and Schwarber as primary players. For now, he’s a piece to Maddon’s puzzle still developing his game.

Oh, and about that potential? Almora doesn’t imagine any limits — not for him or the World Series champion Cubs. After all, they’re only getting started.

“You’re not complacent with just one,” he said. “You want to get there, you want to have that parade, you want to have the celebrations after. You want that as a competitor.

“We got a taste of it. We won. So, let’s do it again.”

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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