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Almora gives Cubs options at top of lineup

@MLBastian
February 24, 2019

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Cubs manager Joe Maddon heard that the Giants would send lefty Madison Bumgarner to the mound on Sunday, it represented an ideal time to slot Albert Almora Jr. into the leadoff spot. Matchups dictated the center fielder's playing time last year and will continue to do

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Cubs manager Joe Maddon heard that the Giants would send lefty Madison Bumgarner to the mound on Sunday, it represented an ideal time to slot Albert Almora Jr. into the leadoff spot. Matchups dictated the center fielder's playing time last year and will continue to do so in the season ahead.

Like any player, Almora would love to grow into an everyday player, but he is understanding of how Maddon tries to fit his many pieces together throughout the lineup and defense. Prior to Sunday's 9-5 win over the Giants, Almora said he is not trying to prove that he deserves more playing time. His focus is on accepting the role that Maddon assigns him for any given game.

"It's a good problem to have. We have a lot of talented players here," Almora said. "We've gone to the playoffs four years in a row. I'm sure [Maddon] is doing something right. Honestly, man, I've said this before. It's not about me. It's about the team. And I'm just another piece to this puzzle. Whenever they call my name, I'll just be ready."

In the first inning against Bumgarner, Almora hit a well-struck line drive to center field for an out. The center fielder later added an RBI single in an eight-run second and grounded out in the third against San Francisco relievers. It was a solid enough Cactus League debut for a player who could see time atop the lineup throughout the summer.

The Cubs do not have a set leadoff man, so Maddon plans on mixing and matching with multiple players. The manager liked what Almora (a right-handed batter) did against lefties as a table-setter last year, especially during the outfielder's stellar first few months. When a righty is on the hill, though, Ian Happ -- or potentially Jason Heyward -- could be in center field.

"That's just going to be based on opportunity," Maddon said of Almora's playing time. "Based on the structure of the team -- we've talked about this and I've talked to him about it -- he can be playing really, really well, which he was [last year], and we're still going to have to, on certain days, you're going to still see a left-hander playing some center field. That's just the way it's going to be."

Overall last year, Almora hit .286, but his .701 OPS left a lot to be desired. His 89 wRC+ indicated that he was 11 percent below league average as an offensive player in '18, though he did post a 117 wRC+ and .333/.368/.429 slash line in 213 plate appearances out of the leadoff spot.

In the second half, Almora turned in a 47 wRC+, contributing to the Cubs' team-wide lineup troubles over the final two months. Part of the issue was his production against righties (.684 OPS, 84 wRC+ in 335 PAs) and diminishing results against fastballs as the season wore on (.497 slugging in the first four months, compared to .303 in the final two months, per Statcast).

Almora worked on swing tweaks over the winter -- he widened his base and returned to his usual leg kick -- but said the biggest adjustment was with his mindset.

"I don't like getting too much into details," Almora said of his swing. "It's just a lot. I could break down my swing here, here and here. And, I don't know. I just went back to being me. Honestly, it starts up here."

Almora pointed to his head.

"At the end of the day, my swing is still going to be there no matter what," he continued. "But, my mental side is what I really worked on."

Maybe that will, in time, lead to an everyday job.

"Albert could probably handle more, yes," Maddon said. "But, we're going to continue to do pretty much what you saw last year in regards to moving guys in and out based on matchups."

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.