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A dark horse candidate for the Cubs bullpen

It’s easy to forget how young Albert Almora Jr. is. 

2019 will mark Almora’s eighth year with the Cubs, yet the only player younger on the projected Opening Day roster is Ian Happ.

The first draft selection of Theo Epstein’s front office (all the way back in 2012) has not had the same linear path as Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber or even Happ. Almora’s journey has been filled with more starts and stops than his peers.

So there are plenty of lessons Almora is still in the process of digesting — about baseball, life and the intersection between the two.

Almora and his wife, Krystal, have two kids before his 25th birthday (they just welcomed their second son recently) and while that can be obviously stressful, it’s also given the Cubs outfielder a new perspective on the baseball field.

“Fatherhood lets me understand failure,” Almora said. “When I go 0-for-4 and I go home, you’re upset or whatever the case may be and you come home and my 2-year-old son looks at me and he just wants to play and have fun. He doesn’t care. 

“That’s the good thing about it. It humbles me. It’s bigger than a game — it’s family.”

Understanding — and being OK with — failure might be the toughest lesson for young baseball players to learn.

Take Almora for example. Throughout his entire life, he played above his age group as a kid and was always one of the best players on the field throughout his time on Team USA, in high school and then in the minor leagues.

This is a guy who hit .321 and .329 in his first two professional seasons in Rookie and A-ball.

Baseball is a game driven by failure, but Almora didn’t get his first true taste of that until he was a 20-year-old in Double-A in 2014, when he was 4.5 years younger than the average player at that level.

This winter, Almora isn’t just worried about his physical fitness or honing his skillset on the field. One of his main areas of focus this offseason is the mental aspect of the game.

“You don’t want to try to overthink it or try to do too much,” he said. “You just try to go out there and be yourself.”

He’s working out twice a day this winter — running, hitting, stretching, anything he can do to unlock his body’s full potential. But he’s also ensuring there’s room to further develop that perspective about failure.

“I found a good balance of what I gotta do and being a father and enjoying my kids, as well,” Almora said. “This is the best shape I’ve been in in my life. I know I’ve said that every year, but I’m serious about it this year.”

Last fall’s abrupt exit has been the only motivation Almora needs this winter as he attempts to take his overall game to the next level.

“We ended too early [last year],” he said. “We still had a lot left in our tank. When something’s taken from you, I think we deserved to keep going. We had a good team. 

“The hunger and that work ethic lights an even bigger fire. It’s a good time to be us and we’re ready to go.”

Almora was one of the central figures in the tale of the Cubs’ two offenses last season. In the first half, he hit .319 with a .795 OPS, 24 extra-base hits and 28 RBI. After the All-Star Break, he lost 87 points off his batting average (down to .232) and 249 points off his OPS (down to .546) while knocking just 6 extra-base hits and 13 RBI.

His offense is the main reason his name is not written on Joe Maddon’s scorecard every single day. The story has been the same for the last two years — Almora tears up lefties but struggles against righties, he hits the ball on the ground too much and he doesn’t work the count enough.

Last season, only 4 players around baseball saw fewer pitches per plate appearance than Almora (3.36). That stat in itself isn’t always bad, but an aggressive approach doesn’t have much value if a player isn’t doing damage on the pitches they make contact with.

For example, Javy Baez (3.48) finished only a few spots lower than Almora on the list of fewest pitches per plate appearance, but the NL MVP runner-up also clubbed 53 more extra-base hits than Almora in 2018. To put that gap into perspective, Anthony Rizzo totaled 55 extra-base hits last season, so basically the difference between Baez’s power and Almora’s power was a full Anthony Rizzo.

Almora’s game is more contact than power, but he actually ranked 82nd in baseball (min. 200 plate appearances) in strikeout percentage last year and saw his plate discipline take steps back compared to 2017 — walking less and striking out more.

Much of that can be tied to the tough second half and maybe fine-tuning his new perspective will help him climb out of slumps faster.

The more he hits, the tougher it’ll be for the Cubs to take Almora out of the starting lineup thanks to his defense in center field.

Almora would love to play every single day and many Cubs fans would love that, too. But he also knows the priority isn’t each individual guy’s playing time.

“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about the team. I’m just trying to do what I can when my name is called and hopefully they have that confidence in me to go out there and play. I’m just trying to stay healthy and be there for my guys whenever they need me.”

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