The Cubs accomplished exactly what they wanted on the first day of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft on Monday.
They used their first pick on a high school outfielder they believe will grow into an impact player, then added two pitchers in Compensation Round A to begin building organizational pitching depth.
The talented high schooler was Albert Almora, an 18-year-old out of Florida, whom the Cubs selected with the sixth overall pick, the first selection under the club's new regime.
Almora, who prepped at Florida's Mater Academy, is a 6-foot-2, 180-pound center fielder who was ranked as the Draft's No. 9 overall prospect by MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo.
Baseball America named him the second-best outfielder available in the Draft and the third-best high school player. Baseball America also ranked Almora as the best defensive player.
"Obviously, you take a kid this high, you feel like he can be a pretty impact offensive player from both a batting-average standpoint and the ability to drive the ball," Cubs vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod said. "Defensively, we see a kid who's going to stay in center field and has the ability to be one of the better center fielders in the game. This kid's a well-rounded baseball player."
The Cubs added college right-hander Pierce Johnson (No. 43 overall) and high school righty Paul Blackburn (No. 56) in the sandwich round.
Johnson, out of Missouri State, was drafted with the pick received after Aramis Ramirez signed with Milwaukee, while the selection of Blackburn came in the slot gained after Carlos Pena returned to Tampa Bay.
Both Ramirez and Pena were Type B free agents
Almora hit .603 (44-for-73) with 13 doubles, five triples, six home runs and 34 RBIs in 25 games for Mater Academy last season. He posted a 1.164 slugging percentage and a .667 on-base percentage, drawing 14 walks compared to only three strikeouts. He also stole 24 bases in 25 attempts.
Unlike other high schoolers who can be difficult to project because of their competition, Almora proved himself at the highest level. He has played for USA Baseball as much as anyone in history, being a part of six USA National teams. He also was named USA Baseball's Athlete of the Year in 2011 after leading the 18-under team to the gold medal in the Pan-Am Games, where he was named tournament MVP.
Aside from his tools, McLeod also cited Almora's makeup as a key that won over McLeod, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer on a visit to Almora's family home in Florida.
McLeod said Almora "checked all the boxes."
"If you just look at the total package of Albert, we feel that he certainly has the ability to no doubt play in the Major Leagues, but also the makeup and work ethic to succeed," McLeod said. "The leadership skills he has and has shown is really what we're looking to bring to the Cubs."
McLeod said he has the ability to move through the Minor Leagues quicker than other high schoolers.
"I don't want to say rapid ascent," McLeod said. "But he's someone who isn't going to come in and have to repeat levels."
The Cubs had a chance to select Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, the expected No. 1 overall pick who was eventually drafted eighth by the Pirates. McLeod said although Appel is a talented pitcher, the Cubs had targeted Almora early on.
"When it got to our pick, Albert was the guy we had spent the most time with and the guy we spent the most time focusing on," McLeod said. "It all lined up."
The selection of Almora also marks the first Draft pick under the watch of Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod, as the trio looks to rebuild the organization and stock the Minor Leagues with talent.
McLeod said he understands the significance that comes with that distinction, but added he believes Almora will shed that label and force people to look at him based on his tools and makeup.
"This kid is driven to succeed and he's driven to be the best," McLeod said. "I think there is something to the whole, 'Theo first-Draft thing,' but that's going to subside pretty quickly. It's going to become about him and his career and what he's going to do for this franchise going forward, and we feel he's going to handle it very well."