Cubs prospect Albert Almora is a born leader
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter February 21, 2014 10:23PM
Mesa Solar Sox outfielder Albert Almora (8), of the Chicago Cubs organization, during an Arizona Fall League game against the Scottsdale Scorpions on October 15, 2013 at HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Arizona. Mesa defeated Scottsdale 7-4. (Mike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP Images)
Updated: March 24, 2014 6:29AM
MESA, Ariz. — Kris Bryant has two years, three months and six semesters of college on Albert Almora. But hanging around with his roommate and teammate at big-league camp with the Cubs this spring, Bryant often gets the feeling Almora is the older one.
‘‘It’s kind of weird,’’ Bryant, 22, said. ‘‘I kind of have to pinch myself.’’
Almora is only 19 (he’ll turn 20 in April), is in his first big-league camp and has less than two years of professional baseball experience to his name. But he already is earning a reputation in the organization that has team officials eager to see the kind of big-league impact he will have on the field and in the clubhouse one day.
‘‘He seems really mature beyond his years,’’ said Cubs president Theo Epstein, who made Almora the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 draft not long after he and ranking execs Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod visited Almora and his family at their home in Miami. ‘‘He carried himself like a college kid. He had a real clear idea of his goals. He thought he was the best player in the draft and wanted to get his career started and prove that.
‘‘I remember him looking at us in the eyes and saying: ‘I’ve won everywhere I’ve been. And not because of me, but because of the teams I’m on. And I want to do that for the Cubs.’ ’’
That confidence and purpose ‘‘is just the way I was brought up,’’ said Almora, whose father raised him on baseball since he was 4 and who never played another sport in high school.
Maybe it should be no surprise Almora would be baseball-wise beyond his years, considering he spent most of his teens playing in international tournaments for Team USA and grew up with best friend Manny Machado, who has a similar nature and reputation with the Baltimore Orioles. The 21-year-old Machado, a third baseman, is one of the brightest young stars in the game and is returning from a frightening knee injury suffered in September.
‘‘[Machado’s] kind of got like — I don’t know how I want to say it — kind of like an old soul,’’ said Cubs right-hander Jason Hammel, who pitched for the Orioles last season.
‘‘We were real tight, like family,’’ said Almora, who played on the same team with Macahdo when they were grade-school kids and still calls Machado a ‘‘cousin.’’ ‘‘It was the dynamic duo. It was great. After the game, he would come over and play at the house. We’d just mess around, do kid stuff.’’
As they grew, ‘‘We worked together,’’ Almora said. ‘‘We have that same dream together, the same motivation — to become who we are, who we want to be.’’
Listening to Almora, you can hear the ‘‘old soul.’’ He has an obvious passion for the game and a stoic determination that belies his age. That passion is impossible to see from a distance in the Cubs’ clubhouse, where he generally keeps to himself and keeps his head down.
For now, anyway. Bryant and Epstein talk about Almora as a natural leader, less loud and fiery than outgoing and inclusive in nature.
‘‘A high first-round pick who’s had initial success, oftentimes those guys get isolated,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘They get big money, and they get treated a little bit different. But he’s always right in the middle of the group.’’
He’s also the guy who had the longest lines on autograph day last year at Class A Kane County and eventually had to be pulled away from signing so they could clear the field. He was the guy who showed up to the park for work early, noticed a kids clinic going on and surprised the undermanned staff by joining in to help coach the kids.
Almora’s mom, Ana, says he was born for this life in baseball. And maybe she’s right.
‘‘For me, to be successful in life, you have to have that thought that there’s no one here that’s going to outdo me,’’ said Almora, who’s ranked 36th on Baseball America’s latest prospects list. ‘‘It’s not something you have to say out loud; it’s something you keep to yourself. It’s a little chip on your shoulder that always makes you work harder.’’
He still can name the five teams who passed on him in the draft: ‘‘Houston, Minnesota, Seattle, Baltimore and Kansas City.’’
The next step in proving they were wrong is putting in a full pro season this year. That’s Almora’s top goal after a broken hamate bone in his left hand and a groin injury cost him 10 weeks in 2013.
His only other goal?
‘‘Win a championship somewhere,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s the point of this game — to win.’’