Welcome to this installment of the Cubs‘ Positional Year in Review series. Last time, we discussed the third basemen, including Kris Bryant and Tommy La Stella. To get caught up on that piece, click here. This article will cover the Cubs’ center fielders. Who will start in center next season is not completely clear, but I did go into some detail about the issues surrounding the position several weeks ago. For that piece, click here. The most likely scenario is that Albert Almora Jr. gets the lion’s share of starts in center and he opens this positional breakdown.
Almora gets the nod here for several reasons. Most notably, because one of the competitors for the job will likely be moving on soon. Jon Jay, who played an okay defensive center field and got on base at a .374 clip in his one season with the Cubs, will probably be heading for greener pastures and possibly more playing time this offseason. He’s a free agent and the Cubs will have few qualms about letting him go, as they have a couple of young players ready for a larger role.
Almora is among that group and he’s in the best position to take the reigns on a more-or-less full time basis. The 23-year-old has been known for his glove since he made his MLB debut in late 2016 and he was as good as advertised in that department when he was first called up. I implore the readers to watch this video of some of Almora’s 2016 highlights set to classical music.
Almora was not quite as good defensively in 2017 as he was the year before, however. He was closer to “above-average” than “great”, mostly due to some limitations on his range. Still, he proved he was more than good enough to patrol center field every day.
The question for Almora has always been whether he can hit enough to be a big-league starter rather than a late-inning defensive replacement. The right-hander has an incredibly smooth swing–one of this writer’s favorites to watch in slow motion–but he doesn’t hit for a ton of power and he walks at a rate similar to Javier Baez. That combination makes it tough to be a productive hitter and indeed, as recently as 2014, Almora was hitting just .234 in Double-A. In his 2016 campaign at Triple-A, he got on base at just a .317 clip in over 300 plate appearances.
We are now 440 plate appearances into Almora’s MLB career, however, and he owns a .330 on-base percentage at that level. He’s also slugged .448 with the Cubs. That’s higher than the figure he posted at any level since his 2013 breakout season at Single-A. In short, Almora has far exceeded expectations at the plate thus far in his career, posting a career OPS of 101 in his first season-plus.
Much of the damage Almora has done–as we’ve documented in this space before–has been against left-handed pitching. The 2012 first-round pick hit a team-best .342 against southpaws in 2017, while posting a stellar .898 OPS. He also walked in over 10 percent of his plate appearances against lefties, compared to just 3 percent against righties. For this reason, Almora mostly played against left-handed pitchers in 2017.
He could get more chances against right-handed pitching next season, as he improved against them down the stretch. From Aug. 1 on, Almora posted a .333/.333/.579 line against righties (that’s right, zero walks) that included a half-dozen doubles and a pair of homers. If he can hold his own against right-handers, Almora is a legitimate everyday player. And much sooner than most might have envisioned.
The biggest challenge to Almora’s coronation as the everyday center fielder will come from Ian Happ. As we discussed in the second base segment of this series, Happ faces a long road to consistent playing time at his natural position. He’ll definitely get some chances in center field. He will be able to hold his own there defensively because of his athleticism and the straight-line speed that is the best on the team. Almora is far more experienced in center though, and is clearly the superior defender at this juncture.
Happ’s path to playing time in center likely rests on him out-hitting Almora. The 2015 first-round pick was certainly better at the plate in 2017, slugging 24 homers and posting a 114 OPS+. However, he struck out over 30 percent of the time and over a quarter of his fly balls turned into home runs. That rate that will be impossible to sustain. All of this is to say that Happ’s production is likely to regress a bit at the plate and if it does he’s more of a utility player than a starter on this team. Still, Almora doesn’t hit this variety of home run very often:
This writer’s prediction is that Almora will start about 130 games in center in 2018, barring injury. He’s simply the best option there right now. This is even more likely because it’s possible that Happ gets traded this offseason. Of all of the Cubs’ valuable young pieces, Happ is the one that doesn’t really have a position available. He’s blocked by Baez at second, Almora in center, and Kyle Schwarber in left field. It’s not too much of a stretch to see the Cubs’ brass deciding that he’s more valuable to another team.
Even if Happ stays, though, I see Almora as the starter next season. If he can carry over his late-season production against right-handers, he could be an effective top-of-the-order hitter. With Jay likely gone, the Cubs’ question mark in the lead-off spot will return. It’s possible Almora fills the void there.