PITTSBURGH – The Cubs and the Kane County Cougars have rolled out advertisements that promise fans will catch a glimpse of the future.
Albert Almora, the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein administration, is expected to join the Class-A affiliate on Wednesday and get a taste for the market and the expectations.
The 19-year-old outfielder had been working out in Arizona after breaking the hamate bone in his left hand, a fairly common baseball injury that required minor surgery in March. Almora, the No. 6 overall pick in last year’s draft, is frequently mentioned as a foundation piece along with top prospects Javier Baez and Jorge Soler.
The window hasn’t quite closed for Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson, two first-round picks made during Jim Hendry’s tenure. Vitters may or may not have a future with the Cubs, but the organization hasn’t given up on him yet. Or at least he’s not buried like Ian Stewart.
The front office has lost all patience with Stewart, who cleared waivers two weeks ago, got pushed off the 40-man roster and will collect his $2 million salary at Triple-A Iowa. Vitters, the third overall pick in the 2007 draft, has moved slowly through the system, but he’s still only 23 years old.
“He’s a priority. Put it that way,” manager Dale Sveum said Tuesday at PNC Park. “Who knows about ‘the third baseman of the future,’ but he’s a priority to develop as that guy.”
Sveum responded after a reporter relayed Stewart’s recent comments to Cubs.com about his lack of playing time at Triple-A Iowa: “I talked to Theo, and he was basically telling me that Vitters is the future at third for them.”
Not so fast: Vitters went 12-for-99 (.121) during his rushed promotion to the big leagues last season and dealt with a quadriceps injury in spring training. He’s hitting .259 with two homers and seven RBI through 16 games at Iowa and still has to answer questions about his defense.
“That’s just what you do in the minor leagues, you develop people to be in that spot,” Sveum said. “Whether that ever happens, who knows? That’s usually up to the individual that we’re trying to develop. They’ll force your hand one way or the other.”
Stewart injured a quadriceps muscle during the team’s first intrasquad scrimmage in February and went 4-for-44 (.091) during his rehab assignment at Iowa. The third baseman also used the 72-hour window a player’s given under the collective bargaining agreement before he has to officially report.
“It was basically if I wanted to stay with the Cubs and accept my assignment here, they were letting me know I wasn't going to play a lot here,” Stewart told MLB.com. “I don’t know if that was a way to get me to take my free agency, because there’s money involved in all of that.”
That’s exactly how it looks, because it’s hard to see how Stewart works his way back into the team’s plans.
Jackson, the 24-year-old outfielder from Cal-Berkeley, is still in the picture.
Jackson dealt with a shoulder injury in spring training and has already battled turf toe this season. He revamped his swing after striking out 217 times combined last season at Iowa and in the majors. He’s hitting .250 with two homers and 12 RBI and 32 strikeouts through 108 at-bats.
“I read the reports every day,” Sveum said. “He’s doing a heck of a lot better than he was last year at this time. I know he’s having some really good days and his bad days are just an 0-for-4 or a 1-for-4 with a strikeout. (He’s) not having those tremendous amounts of strikeouts.”
These aren’t exactly ringing endorsements. But as Sveum said, the Cubs are looking for players that will force the issue.