(CBS) As he will tell you himself, one of the more challenging daily tasks — and a good problem to have — for Cubs manager Joe Maddon is keeping as many starting-caliber players engaged and in rhythm as possible when starts may not come regularly for them on a deep roster.
One of the players who falls into that realm is 23-year-old outfielder Albert Almora Jr., who has 281 at-bats and has started 62 games this season in a part-time role. Maddon has carefully chosen the spots for the righty-swinging Almora, regularly starting him against left-handers and sparingly starting him against right-handers. Almora is hitting .299 with seven homers, 45 RBIs and a .763 OPS.
Looking at splits, he’s hitting .343 with a .910 OPS in 105 at-bats against left-handers and .273 with a .702 OPS in 176 at-bats against right-handers.
With Almora’s strong play, some outside observers have called for Almora to play more often. Maddon hasn’t much budged, and that’s just fine with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who praised Maddon’s use of Almora in an interview on the Mully and Hanley Show on 670 The Score on Wednesday.
“Joe likes to match him up, plays him against all lefties and play against certain right-handed pitchers who can’t necessarily exploit the things he’s not fully developed in yet,” Epstein said. “But when he’s getting the opportunity, he’s doing a better job of laying off the chase slider and hitting hanging spin. That’s just going to serve him well going forward. Does it mean Joe completely changes the way he uses him? I don’t know. I think he gets a little more aggressive with his usage, as you’ve seen. But we’ve gotten this far and we’ve seen this growth by Joe helping him pick the right matchups for him and then most importantly all the hard work Albert’s done. Albert’s not going to stop working and is not going to stop growing. He’s going to impact this team. And Joe’s not going to stop picking the right matchups on a team basis every night.”
Epstein went on to explain that the Cubs have been thrilled with Almora’s development this season.
“It’s been a great growth season for Albert,” Epstein said. “Things aren’t binary. It’s not like there’s a switch that goes off and he goes from prospect to established everyday player or star. It’s a gradual process. The key is to keep growing and keep improving and make the most of the opportunities you have. Albert has done a lot of things that we knew he could do — hit left-handed pitching extremely well, hit fastballs extremely well, hit the ball in extremely well, play with really good instincts, running the bases well, has played — after an unusual start to the season — has played really good defense in center field, is a great team player.
“And he’s started to work on the things that have held him back a little bit to this point in his career, just things he’ll need to address like every player needs to address things. And mainly for him, it’s just not chasing and handling right-handed spin, right-handed breaking stuff. This is a kid who takes hundreds of balls off the slider machine on just about a daily basis trying to get better. And you’ve seen him now start to apply that in the game. Those improvements are starting to manifest in games.”