When the Chicago Cubs front office took over nearly two years ago, they made it clear that much of their focus would be on rebuilding what many felt was a subpar farm system. Acquiring high-end talent is the best way to go about such a task, but senior vice president of scouting and player development, Jason McLeod, says the Cubs are always looking for that little something extra that can help put a prospect over the top.
"Obviously talent plays, that's the first thing," McLeod said. "As a scout, you go in and you look for what a player physically can and can't do on the field and project that out. I think that all of us as evaluators feel that the makeup is a separator in terms of, ‘Is it going to allow this player to maximize his abilities on the field and allow him to make good decisions off the field?' "
It's that combination of talent and makeup that pushed the Cubs to draft Albert Almora with the sixth pick in the 2012 draft. Almora has otherworldly instincts at both the plate and in center field, where many scouts rate him as a top tier defender despite lacking elite speed. Though he doesn't possess that one tool that jumps out upon an initial viewing, there's no doubt that Almora's among the top prospects in all of baseball.
"You come across a player like Albert, and he's not the type of player who just looking at him in uniform, you say, ‘Ok, that's the guy,' " McLeod said. "Obviously he's very fit and toned and all that, but it's not the explosiveness that's very easy to see with him. You watch this kid play the game and you understand his feel for the game, his instincts for the game, he's very talented at the plate, he can hit and hit to all fields. But it's just that innate awareness of the situation, his instincts, especially on defense, that for us is what set Albert apart."
While it became clear to McLeod and the rest of the decision makers that Almora had the talent they were looking for, it was when they met one on one with him that he really won them over. Not only was it plain to see just how passionate Almora is for the game of baseball, but in-home visits with Almora had Cubs officials coming away with glowing reports of him as a person.
In fact, it's actually possible that Almora may be too nice. Prior to games at Kane County (the Cubs Low-A affiliate where Almora is currently playing), once Almora has finished his baseball duties, he can often be found surrounded by dozens of autograph seekers, both young and old. No matter how long it takes, Almora makes sure to sign every piece of paraphernalia that he's presented with and does it all with a smile on his face.
"I came from a humble family," Almora said. "That's the way my parents raised me. They told me to be a nice guy and I really took that to heart. (Signing autographs is) no big deal to me, I know (the fans) came here to watch us play, so it's the least I can do."
McLeod knows that at some point Almora is going to have to learn to be a little more judicious with giving his time to the fans, but currently, the youngster is just enjoying the game he loves and the attention that comes with it.
"He's a kid who loves to play the game, he's passionate about it and he enjoys being on the field," McLeod said. "Right now, he's at the stage that he just doesn't want to say no. He cares, he's a good person and he's a name player, but he's going to have to learn to manage that. But he's such a great kid, and he's enjoying it right now."
While Almora may need to learn to better handle the little issues that pop up when you're a star, one thing that comes naturally to him is the ability to lead. Despite missing the first six weeks of the season following surgery to remove a broken hamate bone, Almora almost instantly became a team leader upon joining his Kane County Cougars teammates.
"It's not about being a vocal leader, it's just being a leader on the field," said the mild-mannered Almora. "Going 110 percent every day, leave it all on the field. Not having any regrets after the game is over, or saying, ‘I could have done more.' Go out there and do everything you can to help the team and let them see that. That makes everybody better."
The Cubs' belief in Almora's leadership paid almost immediate dividends. Soon after he signed his contract with the Cubs, Almora was sent to Arizona to work with other young and rehabbing players. Almora, a Florida native whose parents were both born in Cuba, quickly sought out his coaches and asked to room with Jorge Soler, a Cuban prospect who the Cubs had recently signed to a big-money deal.
"I just know what he went through, I thought it would be easier if he was with me," Almora said. "I know both languages pretty good, and we're from the same heritage. I thought it would be a nice transition for him. It worked out pretty good."
According to McLeod, players like Almora and current Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo are wired differently than many players. McLeod believes that it is more than being the guy on the top step of the dugout, cheering on his teammates. It's a special, immeasurable trait that makes Almora and Rizzo a rare breed.
"There are certain players who have that quality," McLeod said. "Someone who not only gets along with his teammates -- not the guy who's going to be rah-rah and ‘just be friends with everyone' guy -- but someone who is mature, conducts himself in a professional manner and whose teammates just look to him. There are a few guys who have those traits, and we think we have a couple of those guys with Anthony and Albert."
The Cubs front office may be known for their use of statistical analysis, but along the way, they've learned that as essential as stats are to evaluating a player's value, intangibles play a big role as well.
"It's important because you need those leaders in the clubhouse," McLeod said. "You can have guys who are vocal leaders or guys who are not so vocal but lead by example. There are different ways to go about it. Teams need those guys to kind of keep the group together. We feel those are such unique traits to have. Not everyone has them, but we do feel that Albert fits that mold."
Like with Rizzo, the Cubs believe that Almora's work ethic will help ensure he'll eventually reach his ceiling. That talent is currently shining at Kane County, where Almora has displayed his gold-glove level defense and advanced plate approach to the tune of a 356/.390/.525 line in 39 games.
"He's a performer. You go watch this guy play and he always performs," McLeod said. "You just show up, and he's always in the middle of what's going on, on both sides of the ball. He's always hit, hit for some power, driving gaps, very balanced approach and smooth swings. Defensively he makes plays look easy that should be hard, because of his jumps and just knowing where he is on the field. He's not the blazing runner, but he plays like he is. He does it in a way that just looks so natural."
Almora doesn't have the flash that other Cubs top prospects possess, like Javier Baez's elite bat speed and raw power or the type of body that draws every set of eyes his way, like Soler. But as McLeod points out, he plays as though he does have all those qualities.
As far as what he needs to improve upon to move up the minor league ranks and eventually get to the big leagues, McLeod says, like every player in their system, they're paying close attention to whether he can develop consistency in his approach at the plate. Almora is also attempting to get his timing down on the base paths; he currently has four stolen bases, but has been thrown out four times as well. It's something Almora says is coming along as he gets re-accustomed to the speed of the game after being on the shelf for a month and a half.
"There's no perfect player in this game," Almora said. "You learn something every day."
But while Almora and McLeod seem to be very patient and realistic about Almora's development, the same may not be true for others. With the Cubs midway through their second consecutive dreadful season, much of the focus of fans and media has been diverted from the major league team and placed on the top prospects.
According to Baseball America, Baez, Soler and Almora are among the top 20 prospects in the game and recent draftee, Kris Bryant, is arguably the best of the bunch. With such accolades come high expectations, but Almora isn't letting that get in the way of focusing on the task at hand.
"There's no pressure," Almora said. "We can control what we can control, that's playing on this field. Just take it day by day. When it's our time to shine, then that's our time. But right now, all we can control is what we're doing here."
There are those who believe the Cubs are putting the team's future success solely in the hands of kids who have no experience past the Double-A level. However, it would be foolish to think that a group that includes such highly respected minds as Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and McLeod are banking on all these kids to develop into stars when they're well aware of how often prospects fail.
"We're pretty excited about these guys, but these guys are pretty far away right now," McLeod said. "We all know what happens to prospects. Yeah, it'd be awesome to see all four of those guys and more up in the big leagues in a couple years. But history tells us that is probably not going to happen. There's no doubt they're really exciting and they have tremendous potential, but none of them have played past Double-A yet. That's something that's not lost on any of us in the front office. We keep a level head about where they are, and as excited as we get, we always remember that."
While the Cubs try to quell the hype around these kids, Almora isn't afraid to point out what the end game to all of this is: winning a World Series.
"That's the main goal, that's what the organization talked to us about before we signed," Almora said. "To be a championship team, to be a World Series champ, that's what we're all looking forward to. It's a process, and we're just trying to work hard right now to get there as fast as possible."
And as fast as some may want it to be, the reality is, these kids aren't ready to save the Cubs this season. Even 2014 would be an optimistic goal. But in the meantime, Almora has a message to all the Cubs fans who have eagerly waited for their team to finally be among the best in the game.
"It's coming, it's coming," Almora said with a confident grin. "Sooner or later, we're coming."