Epstein: Almora's struggles echo Castro's

CHICAGO – With some of the Chicago Cubs' top prospects getting promoted this past week, one has to wonder where 2012 first-round pick Albert Almora fits into the picture.

Almora, 20, is stuck at the High A level, with the Daytona Cubs, and hitting just .243. The outfielder's .266 on-base percentage is woefully low for a player Cubs president Theo Epstein calls possibly the best “pure hitter” in the franchise's system.

“We’re going to look back and say this was a great developmental year for Albert,” Epstein said. “We trust Albert to go out and hit in the long run as much as anyone in our system. He’s sort of just a natural hitter, a pure hitter, yet he’s struggling in High A ball. This will be good for him.”

Epstein gave some insight into why Almora is struggling by relating him to another Cub who went through a tough season last year.

“[Almora] was challenged earlier this year the way Starlin [Castro] was challenged last year to swing at more pitches he can drive," Epstein said. "And a lot of times when young hitters experience that for the first time, they take a step back before they take a step forward."

That might make some fans cringe. Castro was famously asked to be something he wasn’t, and the result was a .245 batting average in 2013 -- about the same as Almora is hitting now. But Castro has taken that step forward this year. He has already surpassed his home run total from the past season and is on pace for a career high, while raising his batting average nearly 50 points.

“This is the first time in [Almora’s] life he’s ever struggled, and he’s dealing with it really well,” Epstein said. “He’s not backing down at all. He’s working really hard, in control of his emotions, in control of his thoughts. I expect him to have a good second half.”

As with any struggling prospect, Epstein is looking at the positives. He doesn’t mind a roller coaster in the minors because he feels it teaches the player a coping mechanism for when he makes it to the big leagues. But the downside, of course, is if the player never gets that feeling back. See Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson for examples.

Almora can project that pure hitter look. He squared up balls all of spring training -- they jumped off his bat. But he’s also smart. He will realize his low walk total (7) might be a result of his trying to do more than he should. It’s not that different from what Castro went through. The hope is that Almora will let the game come to him.

“There are some things he needs to work on, and he is working on them,” Epstein said. “Albert is going to be just fine. He continues to play great defense, run the bases well and be a leader.”

He’ll just have to work on them at Class A for a while longer.