By Bruce Levine–
MESA, Ariz. (670 The Score) — The Cubs have an elite lineup in which as many as seven or so players have 20-homer potential. What they don’t appear to have is a natural lead-off man.
Switch-hitting veteran Ben Zobrist has filled that role many times in his career, but the problem is that Zobrist will likely be a part-time player. So who could bat lead-off on, say, Opening Day?
Keep an eye on 23-year-old outfielder Albert Almora, the Cubs’ first-round draft pick in 2012. Almora has matured under the guidance of manager Joe Maddon, who has picked quality matchups when choosing when to use Almora. While Almora would obviously like more playing time, Maddon’s decisions have worked out well. Almora hit .298 with eight homers, 46 RBIs and a .782 OPS in 2017.
Of his 323 plate appearances, 125 came against left-handers, against whom he had an .898 OPS. He had a .711 OPS against right-handers.
The idea of batting lead-off is cool with Almora.
“That would be fine,” Amora said. “We have great players I can lean on for intel if that happens to be the case. We have a great coaching staff as well that I can get a lot of help from. I have done it. I have done it in the past. I did it a couple of times last year. It is about learning, seeing some pitches to start the game off right and just play our game.”
The Cubs were blessed with a natural lead-off man in Dexter Fowler in 2015 and 2016 before he left in free agency. In 2017, the Kyle Schwarber experiment at lead-off failed. Jon Jay ended up batting first 51 times, while Zobrist logged 40 games there.
No one with the Cubs has said it will be Almora getting the first chance to be the primary lead-off man, but it appears Maddon is leaning that way. Almora has a career .330 on-base percentage. He’s pretty good at making contact, with a 16.4 percent strikeout rate in 2017. Some scouts believe he will grow into the lead-off role.
Almora wants to take full charge of the role. If he doesn’t, Maddon can always mix and match again.
“Look, the job is to get on base and see some pitches for the other guys,” Almora said. “This will be fun if they decide to use me there. I would love the opportunity. I am excited for a chance to do it.
“You know in some situations, your approach is a little different. At the same time, I am still going to be aggressive. I am going to be me. Hopefully, it works out.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.