GENEVA – Class-A Kane County outfielder Albert Almora walked outside the Cougars’ clubhouse July 7, leaving behind his teammates, who were stunned silent.
Cougars manager Mark Johnson, frustrated by his team’s poor effort and focus in a 12-5 loss to Quad Cities, had just finished a post-game speech not suitable for young ears and walked into his office to let his team mull over his demands.
Despite going 3 for 4 with a walk, two runs and a stolen base, Almora wore the loss as hard as any of his teammates, speaking softly as he tried to explain Kane County’s then 34-49 Midwest League record. Only hours before, Almora was all smiles as he described the bond inside the locker room.
“I love playing with these guys. They’re like my brothers,” Almora said. “It’s fun looking forward to the future and what could happen.”
Almora, along with Double-A Tennessee infielder Javier Baez and Class-A Advanced outfielder Jorge Soler, represent the core of a farm system the organization is hoping eventually turns the Cubs into a perennial playoff contender.
Baseball America released its top 50 prospect midseason rankings Monday and the Cubs were well represented. Baez (No. 10), Almora (No. 16) and Soler (No. 18) all made the list.
“Those guys will all make it to the majors. It’s just a question if they’ll be solid regulars or stars,” Baseball America editor Jim Callis said. “There’s a real chance all three players will become legitimate players for the Cubs.”
While offensive production often garners the most attention at any level, Almora’s defense could help him quickly climb through the minors as some people in baseball believe his defense is nearly ready for the majors.
“I’m just blessed, I guess, that God gave me the ability to play the outfield pretty good,” Almora said.
But for all his natural talent and success with the Cougars this season, Almora had to overcome the first big test of his young career. Almora missed the Cougars’ first 42 games after left wrist surgery.
He broke the hamate bone, a common baseball injury, during spring and finally debuted for Kane County on May 22. Almora said he hasn’t been experiencing any soreness or pain in his wrist, although he does wear a protective brace on his left wrist when he’s on base as it’s sensitive when he slides because of scar tissue.
“It was something that really caught me by surprise and shocked me because I’ve never been on the [disabled list] or hurt really bad like that,” Almora said. “You always play with bumps and bruises, but something involving surgery, stitches and rehab, it was something my body appreciated more than my mind. I wanted to get out there real bad.”
Since then, Almora has been a force at the plate. He’s hitting .333 with three home runs, has 20 RBIs and 33 runs in 44 games and if it weren’t for the broken bone, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said there could have been discussions right now in moving Almora up to Daytona.
“It might be a different conversation if he didn’t miss that month and a half,” Hoyer said. “He’s been really impressive there, but that’s something that we’re still evaluating.”
The pressures that come with being a first-round, No. 6 overall 2012 draft pick, let alone for a franchise pursuing its first World Series title since 1908, isn’t lost on Almora.
“It’s a big responsibility and I take it to heart,” said Almora, who visited Wrigley Field on July 9 during the Cougars’ off day. “I definitely work the way I’m supposed to.”
Almora credits his experience playing on USA Baseball for three years on the 14U, 16U and 18U teams for helping mold him into who he is today. And it extends beyond his on-field responsibilities.
Almora, 19, regularly dedicates time before and after games to signing autographs for fans. Before Sunday’s game at Kane County, Almora had the longest autograph line among his teammates and fulfilled every request, even posing for pictures until a Cougars staff member signaled it was time to finish getting ready for the game.
“If we can sign 3,000 autographs in three hours for Topps, a card company, I’m pretty sure I can take 10 minutes from my time to sign for fans,” Almora said. “We play this game for the fans.”
The time he devotes to fans as well as his game isn’t an act, either, according to Johnson, who is in his first year managing the Cougars.
“The way he goes about his business and the way he thinks and the way he understands is way beyond his years,” Johnson said. “Just by the way he comes in every day, he’s always asking the right questions.”
Being the youngest player on the Cougars hasn’t held back Almora.
“To be honest, I don’t look at it as I want to move up,” Almora said. “Of course, at the end of the day, you want to get to Wrigley. Right now, I’m just happy I’m playing somewhere. They could send me to China if they want, as long as I’m playing for the organization and helping them in some way, I’ll be happy.”