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Cubs’ Albert Almora in great shape thanks to backyard workout regimen

Outfielder Albert Almorsixth overall pick draft June is tied with former catcher A.J. Hinch for most Team USA selections with

Outfielder Albert Almora, the sixth overall pick in the draft in June, is tied with former catcher A.J. Hinch for the most Team USA selections with six. | Almora family Photos

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Updated: January 6, 2013 10:03AM

HIALEAH, Fla. — Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs’ promising first baseman, drove 45 minutes down the Florida turnpike recently to spend some time with Albert Almora, the sixth overall pick in the draft in June, at his home near Miami.

Rizzo, billed as a team leader in the making at 23, had met Almora when he visited Wrigley Field in September. Rizzo decided to touch base with his South Florida neighbor.

‘‘I’m always asking about the reports on these [top] guys,’’ Rizzo said.

Especially this guy, the first player drafted under the Theo Epstein regime?

‘‘Yeah, that’s a lot of pressure,’’ Rizzo said, breaking into a wide grin as he looked at Almora. ‘‘Don’t screw it up.’’

As the winter meetings proceed this week, with a broadcaster becoming the marquee acquisition of the offseason, it’s easy to forget that the Cubs’ future has nothing to do with players such as Scott Feldman and Kyuji Fujikawa and everything to do with players such as Almora.

‘‘It’s a great honor to be a part of what’s going to come up,’’ said Almora, an outfielder who already has his sights set on earning a bid to the prestigious Futures All-Star Game next season after only 33 games in Class A. ‘‘I take it as a huge responsibility and work hard every day.

‘‘Every year that comes by I’m going to work harder and harder to show them that they made a great choice and for everybody else that didn’t pick me that they made a horrible choice.’’

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On a sunny spring day 15 years ago, Albert Almora Sr. drove through the neighborhood when 3-year-old Albert Jr. suddenly shouted from the back seat, ‘‘I want to play that! I want to play there!’’

Senior looked out at the baseball field, and Junior was persistent. Turns out he was too young to play organized ball for another year, so Senior — a good player in Cuba in his youth — started teaching him the game.

Almost immediately, Albert Jr. demanded fly balls instead of grounders. A few months later, Albert Sr. discovered his son might have real talent.

‘‘By mistake,’’ said Albert’s mother, Ana.

She told the story of Albert’s dad accidentally connecting too hard on a line shot toward Albert and yelling for him to get out of the way.

Instead, Albert lunged for the ball and caught it.

‘‘My husband came home and told me, ‘This kid’s got a ­natural ability to play ball that even surprised me, and I know baseball,’ ’’ she said. ‘‘So I feel he was born for that. Everybody’s born with something, and that’s what he was born with.’’

Just like that, it was all baseball all the time for Albert Jr., an admitted baseball ‘‘gym rat.’’ He declined offers to play other sports through the years and developed, with his dad, an unorthodox training regimen that included daily 20-foot rope climbs, pulling a heavy chain attached to the end of a rope and turning a tractor tire over and over.

All of this in an outdoor workout course constructed in the family backyard next to a netted batting cage his dad put up.

‘‘That was my gym right there,’’ said Albert, who never lifted weights until signing with the Cubs but whose hands, forearms, back and core have developed into near-ideal baseball shape through his program.

‘‘Baseball is about your core and your hips and your lower body. So with doing all that, every time I went out there, it felt super strong. It was natural. It wasn’t like I was swelling up. I stayed the same, but my core and everything was as strong as someone that goes to the gym and does weights. So it worked out perfect for me.’’

The 6-1, 175-pound Almora showed Rizzo how quickly he can ascend and descend on the rope, just as he did for Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and scouting boss Jason McLeod — and the execs’ handheld video devices — in April.

The 6-3, 240-pound Rizzo took a turn. He basically dangled a few inches off the ground for a few seconds before deciding he required different muscle groups to succeed.

‘‘It’s a pretty cool thing to see that,’’ McLeod said of what he calls Almora’s ‘‘contraptions.’’ ‘‘On one hand, it talks about his commitment because it’s something that he’s done for a long time. And that type of training is going to help prevent the bulkiness of just pure weightlifting.’’

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Last spring, Almora’s U.S. national team was playing a college team when the center fielder cut off a single in the gap with a runner on first and quickly reared back for an apparent throw to third. The runner had no intention of trying for third, but he took an aggressive turn at second. Almora, with his leg already raised for the throw, quickly fired a dart behind the shocked runner to nail him at second.

‘‘You just don’t see that,’’ Cubs scouting executive Tim Wilken said. ‘‘It’s almost like he draws these plays up before they happen.’’

In fact, Almora told Wilken he had picked off runners like that close to a half-dozen times.

‘‘Some of the things you see him do instinctively, it blows my mind,’’ Wilken said after watching the less-than-imposing athlete put together a series of 10 games that showed an uncommon combination of skill, energy and feel for the game. ‘‘He was amazing.

‘‘It’s one of the few times I knew right there [that early in the draft process] that if he wasn’t the guy, he was going to be awful close to being the guy. It was a no-doubter for me.’’

Almora, who’s tied with former catcher A.J. Hinch for the most Team USA selections with six, was the last Cubs draftee to sign this year, but he reported immediately and played briefly with touted Cuban prospect Jorge Soler. Almora advanced a level to Class A Boise before the end of the season, then went straight to the Instructional League. He has yet to take more than a few days off from swinging a bat.

‘‘That’s his therapy,’’ his mom said. ‘‘Everybody said, ‘He’s going to get suffocated.’ But baseball is such a passion for him.’’

Epstein already has mentioned Almora’s name when talking about core players. He’s expected to play for new Class A affiliate Kane County next season.

‘‘I heard it was 30 minutes from Chicago?’’ he said. ‘‘It’d be awesome. But I really don’t care where I play as long as I’m playing.’’

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