It’s about time the Cubs send Albert Almora down to the minors and replace his roster spot with Addison Russell. While the Cubs clearly need Russell’s defensive ability at middle infield, as displayed last night with David Bote’s crucial error at shortstop in the ninth inning and Happ’s inability to make plays a good second basemen would, this move is needed also because Almora has consistently underperformed in relation to his expectations this season. I have been imploring for the Cubs to not start him for a while now, dating all the way back to three weeks ago when I wrote why Almora is hindering the Cubs from reaching their full potential. While this title may have been true before the deadline, it was thought that the acquisitions of Nicholas Castellanos and Tony Kemp solved the Almora problem due to both of them being able to play outfield. I honestly believed Almora would never start another game again this season after the deadline, but I was mistaken. He has started six games and has received 29 at-bats since the trades happened.
With the additions at the deadline, it's nonsensical to continually give Almora plate appearances given his struggles. I understand Castellanos has played basically every day since his acquisition, but what was the point of acquiring Tony Kemp if the Cubs were going to continue starting Almora? Kemp is a much better offensive option and he can play both left field and right field. I understand he has not been good since being traded to the Cubs, but he deserves more opportunities to prove his worth. If they knew Almora was going to keep receiving at-bats, they should have not acquired Kemp, as the Cubs could really use Martin Moldonado right now with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras sidelined with a hamstring injury. It is very peculiar why the Cubs continue to play Almora so much, especially since Cubs President Theo Epstein preached in the offseason that 2019 is a season about “production over potential.” They have followed that sentiment with practically every player on the roster, besides Almora. Given that he was a first-round draft pick in 2012, it seems like the Cubs are actually valuing potential over production in his case.
I say that because the facts surrounding Almora’s production are woeful if you take a look at them. According to FanGraphs, he is a -0.2 WAR player. This means he is actually making the Cubs worse rather than creating value like a starting center fielder should. If his defense were even coming close to making up for his nonexistent offense, his WAR would not be negative. To make matters worse, he has an OBP of .275, which is worse than both Daniel Descalso and Jon Lester. Descalso hasn’t received an at-bat since July 23rd and Lester, as we all know, is a pitcher. Everyone was begging the front office to DFA Descalso the second he started to underperform, so why is the narrative different when it comes to Almora? To elaborate even further, in 2016 when everyone was adamant Jason Heyward was killing the Cubs with his play, he had a WAR of 1.0 due to his phenomenal play in right field. That’s a full 1.2 WAR better than Almora right now, which is a significant difference.
Speaking of defense, the idea that Almora is some sort of phenomenal defender in the outfield has made its way around the Cubs fanbase, and it is completely false. According to FanGraphs, Almora is worth -3 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) this season, which is 24th-best in baseball among the 34 center fielders with at least 400 innings played this season. That is not ideal. In addition, he is having virtually no success against left-handed pitching this season, which was his strength in seasons past. After an .898 OPS in 2017 and .742 OPS in 2018, his OPS against lefties this year is all the way down to ~.520, which is almost 250 points below league average. Joe Maddon continues to start him in CF against lefties, and it is simply the wrong decision. The organization-wide infatuation with Almora is very perplexing, as he has proven nothing to warrant receiving at-bats, let alone starting games for a team in a tight divisional race.
On the flip side, Addison Russell has been scolding the ball in the minors lately. In 119 plate appearances in Triple-A Iowa, he has seven home runs, 26 RBIs, 14 walks, and an OPS of .949 (source: baseball-reference.com). He also plays the second-best middle infield defense in the organization behind only Javier Baez. As stated earlier, defense up the middle is a huge need with the Cubs right now due to Happ still figuring out how to play second base and Bote not being capable of a backup shortstop role. If Russell is on the diamond at either second or shortstop on Thursday night against the Phillies, the Cubs win that game.
I realize Russell has been an off-field nightmare the last two years and has rightfully received a lot of hate from fans because of this. He also made a lot of mental mistakes in the field and on the basepaths this season, which led to his demotion to Triple-A Iowa. However, he was holding himself accountable for his mistakes, which was evident when he admitted that he did not know the signs very well. This accountability was not on display with his previous off-field issues, which is a step in the right direction. Furthermore, General Manager Jed Hoyer said after Russel's demotion that the organization expected him to eventually join the team again, and I believe right now is a perfect time. It does not matter that the minor league season is three weeks away from ending and September call-ups are soon. The bottom line is that Russell is a much better baseball player than Albert Almora, and there’s no excuse for the Cubs not to field their best 25 players in a heated divisional race. Remember last year when the Cubs relinquished the division in a tie-breaker? I do, and it proves that every game matters. Calling up Russell would not only help the Cubs defensively and hopefully offensively, but it would also stop Almora from taking plate appearances away from Tony Kemp, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ. It’s about time the organization has the fortitude to make a tough decision and swap Almora for Russell. Now.
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