PITTSBURGH – Andrew McCutchen would have been a marquee attraction at Wrigley Field, the right-player-at-the-right-time free agent that checks all the boxes. The five-tool talent already has the dreadlocks, the cover to “MLB 13: The Show” and a new spot in those “This is SportsCenter” ads.
The Cubs believe they have a future Gold Glove centerfielder and clubhouse leader in Albert Almora, their first player drafted by the Theo Epstein administration.
“It’s a responsibility, but I look at it as a challenge,” Almora said. “What’s forming here is going to be something special.”
This is connecting the dots from a 1-0 walk-off loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Opening Day. McCutchen shielded Barry Bonds during Monday’s pregame ceremony at PNC Park. The cheers became louder than the boos when Bonds presented McCutchen with his 2013 National League MVP hardware.
Bonds left Pittsburgh after a heartbreaking 1992 season and won five more MVP awards for the San Francisco Giants (while becoming a symbol for baseball’s Steroid Era). The Pirates didn’t have another winning season until last year, when they earned 94 victories and a wild card.
Baseball’s economics have shifted so much that McCutchen didn’t have to leave Pittsburgh to get super-rich. The Pirates aren’t a farm team for big-market franchises anymore, the way former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry used them to steal Aramis Ramirez in a lopsided trade before the 2003 deadline.
McCutchen, who’s only 27 years old, would have been a free agent after the 2015 season, when the Cubs believe they will be ready for a breakthrough. At that point, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant will have gotten a taste, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are supposed be over the growing pains and there should be enough financial flexibility to make a splash.
Except the Pirates got ahead of the curve in 2012, signing McCutchen to a six-year, $51.5 million contract that includes a team option for 2018. Even if the Cubs were the picture of financial health – the USA TODAY salary survey had the payroll for their Opening Day product at $74.5 million – they would still need to build something from within because so many teams are locking up potential free agents.
It’s also time to get over the sticker shock. After a winter that saw the price of pitching explode and the Seattle Mariners give Robinson Cano a 10-year, $240 million megadeal, the Detroit Tigers just extended themselves with a 10-year contract for Miguel Cabrera worth $292 million. This could just be the cost of doing business.
“Every team has to make its own decisions,” Epstein said. “You have to be aware of the market. You have to operate in a market when you’re in free agency and it effects everything you do to a certain extent.
“But ultimately we have to make smart decisions for our situation – the situation we’re in now, and then anticipating the situation we’re going to be in a few years (from now). We just take it all into account and try to chart the path that makes the most sense for us.”
After Jacoby Ellsbury switched sides in The Rivalry, grabbing a seven-year, $153 million contract from the New York Yankees, Epstein pointed out that the Boston Red Sox bookended two World Series titles (2007 and 2013) around the outfielder’s seven seasons of club control.
Enter Almora, who got drafted sixth overall in 2012 and is supposed to begin his season on Thursday at advanced Class-A Daytona. He’s listed at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds and looked different in spring training. He said he gained 10 pounds after an offseason working out at a Boras Corp. training facility in Florida with unsigned free agent Kendrys Morales, (now injured) Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias and Red Sox prospect Deven Marrero.
Almora rested for a month after hitting .329 in only 61 games at Class-A Kane County. He broke the hamate bone in his left hand during spring training and strained his groin last summer. At the age of 19, he became the youngest player in the Arizona Fall League and began this year as Baseball America’s No. 36 overall prospect.
“It’s wear and tear,” Almora said. “As a baseball player, you go hard all the time. I don’t think I’ve taken more than five days off since I was three-and-a-half years old. So your body gives up a little bit. I got that month off and I’m brand new.”
Ellsbury is another dynamic player who had issues staying on the field in Boston. Jason McLeod – the Cubs executive involved in making Ellsbury a first-rounder in 2005 – wrote off Almora’s injuries as freak accidents.
“Albert’s a guy who plays really under control,” McLeod said. “He’s not the crash-headfirst-into-the-wall guy, because just instinctively he knows where he is on the field in space at all times. It’s not a reckless type of game that he plays.”
Almora developed that feel growing up in a Cuban-American family in the Miami area, playing for Team USA and the elite travel squads in South Florida. McLeod recalled a moment from spring training, inside the team’s new complex in Mesa, Ariz.
“Anthony Rizzo grabbed me in the kitchen to talk about Albert and how he played the game,” McLeod said. “Just watching him take BP, Albert’s not a kid who’s hitting balls 500 feet. But Anthony decides to tell me: ‘Man, watching this kid hit, it’s such a pro approach. He’s lining balls line-to-line with meaning.’”
Insiders talk about Almora’s poise, how he would keep signing autographs at Kane County, how if he would volunteer for a community event, other players would follow and want to be there for the appearance. He’s also a strong bilingual voice in the room.
“He definitely is more mature,” said Bryant, last year’s No. 2 overall pick. “He carries himself so much better than a lot of those other teenagers out there.”
That’s where the Cubs are at now, waiting for the Wrigley Field renovation and new TV deals, looking forward to a big-ticket item (just not McCutchen) and betting on prospects like Almora.
“He’s a leader in the clubhouse,” McLeod said. “You can tell the passion he has for the game, how badly he wants to win and win here, how important it is for him to be a Cub. And how important it is for him to be part of that team, hopefully, when it does happen.”