Can the Cubs Win a World Series with Albert Almora in Center?
Admittedly, the question of whether Albert Almora can be the center piece — if not necessarily the centerpiece — in a Cubs World Series puzzle is fraught with all sorts of peril. So interdependent are the various moving parts that to change one is to fundamentally alter the others. A butterfly flaps its wings in China and we get a time-travel movie starring Ashton Kutcher and that heavy guy from My Name is Earl. As such, it’s going to be necessary to strip a lot of the variables away in order to work with a more simplified control group.
Actually, the control group is easy because it’s just Almora. For the purpose of this exercise, we’re going to assume Dexter Fowler actually does leave the Cubs at the conclusion of this season and that Almora is promoted to take over the everyday CF role. We’re also going to have to project a stat line for Almora, so you might want to get the kosher salt ready. I’m going to be conservative and go with a slash line of .260/.300/.375, though there’s potential for that to improve.
Keep in mind that this whole thing is kind of like the leap of the lion’s head Indiana Jones has to make in his quest for the Holy Grail, which is to say that we’ve got to walk on faith. In this case, the invisible bridge is a stat line that we can only guess at. That’s why I suppressed the numbers a bit from the .287/.323/.416 Almora has posted in four minor league seasons. I know a lot of folks are worried about the OBP, and for good reason, but I think some of those fears may be allayed in the coming season.
We already saw a great deal of improvement in Almora’s walk rate — an area of concern for the aggressive hitter — at AA Tennessee last season, and his improved approach should help him to continue that at AAA Iowa. After walking at an already-low 6.3 percent clip at low-A Kane County in 2013, Almora drew free passes only 3.1 percent of of the time the following season at high-A Daytona, and in twice as many plate appearances.
The Cubs saw enough in other areas to promote the glove-first prospect late in the season, but his walk rate plummeted to 1.4 percent in 36 AA games. In all, Almora walked only 31 times in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Combined. Yikes. In 2015, however, he made some adjustments and, after a bit of a slow start, ended up drawing 32 walks in only 56 percent of the plate appearances he’d accumulated over the previous two seasons. A 7.1 percent walk rate isn’t necessarily something to crow about, but it was the highest of his young career and came at the highest level at which he’s played to this point.
Also notable is Almora’s strikeout rate, or lack thereof, which has generally been in the very low double digits over the past four seasons. As you might expect, there was a spike to 16 percent upon promotion to Tennessee, but he dialed in the swing as part of an improved approach in 2015. As a result, his 10.4 percent K-rate last season was the best he’s put up since rookie ball. That’s no mean feat, and something that’s impossible to overlook when talking about his fit with a team that has its fair share of contact issues.
By now you’ve probably seen or heard or read about Almora’s fantastic defense, maybe even here on this very site (Spoiler alert: the featured image is a prelude for a video below), as I’ve done little to hide my effusive praise of Theo Epstein’s first draft pick and his desire for perfection. Much of my fawning has been over his attitude and his glove, though, and has had little to do with his bat. While it’s possible for a one-dimensional player to take up a roster spot, it’s generally not ideal.
And that’s where we come to the question of Albert Almora’s ability to not only make the Cubs’ 25-man roster, but to do so as a valuable everyday player who can be part of a championship contender. In order to answer that, I think we first need to look at what an average MLB centerfielder looks like from an offensive standpoint. Below is a look at the aggregate stats for CF’s over each of the last 10 seasons.
A quick note about the averages here: I did not factor variance in total plate appearances, though the season-over-season differences are relatively negligible and my Excel skills are not such that I would have been able do the accounting anyway. There are a few individual trends you can feel free to delve into further on your own, but I’m more interested in the overall picture that emerges. Heading into this, I had thought we’d find that the average CF is perhaps a tick below average when it comes to offensive production.
If we do a quick comparison with the averages for all position players, however, we’ll see that this is not the case.
Keep in mind that these totals include centerfielders, so the totals for all non-CF’s are actually slightly worse in most categories. If you’re thinking these numbers are irrelevant when it comes to Albert Almora, you’re right. Sort of. While it’s true that we’re not comparing him to other positions, let alone the composite metrics of all eight spots combined, the takeaway here is that CF’ers are generally superior to the average major leaguer when it comes to offensive production.
If he’s able to maintain his MiLB numbers, Almora stacks up very favorably with his would-be counterparts. His slash line is more robust in most aspects and his strikeout rate is significantly better. Even the oft-lamented walk rate isn’t too far off pace. The again, those numbers are being taken from a professional career played against AA competition and below. Ah, but we must then consider that Almora won’t turn 22 until April 16, which means he’s still a few years from hitting his hypothetical prime.
We’ll learn a lot this year, but continued improvement in his plate approach and overall production in Iowa would lend a great deal of credence to the idea that Almora can be at least an average hitter in the Bigs. And that’s average for center, which would make him an above-average offensive force on the whole. Add in the plus glove and you’re talking about a guy who could absolutely be an everyday player.
Do the Cubs want just an average CF though? It’s clear at this point that a World Series is no longer a dream, but a realistic goal. With that in mind, I wanted to look at the starters in center for each of the last 10 world champs to see how they compare to the totals we saw above.
We could spend all day breaking down the different categories here, but I want to focus on the catch-all stats in order to conserve a little time. Aaron Rowand and Coco Crisp — along with Melky Cabrera to a lesser extent — are the obvious exceptions in a group that is pretty elite on the whole. If we remove them from the list, the average wRC+ jumps up to 112 and the wOBA to .341, respective increases of 13 and 5 percent. Of course, we can’t remove them and I’ll revisit exactly why in just a bit.
As an aside, Lo Cain is just a flippin’ beast. Even among some other really talented players, his line stands out like something from a Sesame Street “One of these kids is doin’ his own thing” sketch. And it’s not just the offense either, his D is superb. Woow.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge Dexter Fowler just a bit more in all this too. In terms of offense, he compares very favorably to even the World Series winners. Like, very favorably. The only real drawback is that Fowler could just as well be called Ex because he’s got no D. He was adequate with the glove in 2015, but that hasn’t always been the case. Still, his bat more than made up for any deficiencies in the field.
Okay, cool, so we know Fowler is capable of playing CF for a World Series contender. But what about Almora, who has the potential to put up similar stats but will likely face an adjustment period when he first comes up? This is where we bring Crisp and Rowand back into the picture. While they look like aberrations in the midst of the top-tier players by whom they’re surrounded above, they do offer clear examples that you don’t necessarily need an All-Star with the bat in center.
He should eventually settle into a nice groove, but even a struggling Almora could exceed Rowand’s line and should be able to avoid running headlong into walls too. We’d probably be seeing something between Rowand and Crisp at the plate, but it’s not hard to project Almora easily outpacing those players’ defensive impact. No, it’s not hard at all…
So yeah, I think we can safely say that Albert Almora can be the starting centerfielder on a World Series-caliber team.
If he’s indeed able to improve that walk rate and start threatening double digits with it, along with keeping the K’s down, that answer goes from safe to emphatic. Well, it does in my book anyway. Now the only question remaining is just when Almora and the Cubs will reach that final goal and how many times they’ll get there (I can almost hear people clenching and cringing to ward off the hex they feel I cast and they perpetuated by reading/writing those words).
*Colby Rasmus played a lot of center for that team but was traded in July.