After a Winning Holiday Weekend, Is Maddon Finally Ready to #FreeAlmora?

The Chicago Cubs had a very nice Memorial Day Weekend. After winning two of three at home against the San Francisco Giants, the boys in blue (or rather green, in holiday honor of our military) took a late Sunday night plane ride to Pittsburgh in order to be at PNC Park for today’s 12:35 PM start time. With bullpen stalwart Mike Montgomery called to the mound in place of an ailing Yu Darvish, and the players working on so little rest, anything could have happened. Instead the Cubbies treated their hosts to a 7-0 rout, led by good stuff from Montgomery and a key fourth inning, two-run homer off the bench from Addison Russell.

At the time of this post, the Cubs sit four and a half games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. That’s not ideal but we’ve got two-thirds of a season left to play. Starting ace Jon Lester has been on fire, which bodes well for tomorrow’s second game of three in Steel City. There’s been some trouble with the non-Lester part of the rotation and Anthony Rizzo is still struggling at the bat. But the end of May is no time for panic. Hell, I’m even coming around to Schwarber as a permanent left fielder. If he’s going to smoke Francisco Lindor at second base like that, I may have been hasty in my season-opening judgment (yes, Internet, I can admit it).

However, nestled within my late-March outfield castigation of Kyle Schwarber was another complaint. One that remains as disappointingly active as it was during Week 1 of the 2018 MLB season. That particular column marked my first public use of the #FreeAlmora hash tag. It appears destined not to be the last. On May 23, Danielle Sauers of Locked on Cubs wrote:

“There’s no doubt that Albert Almora Jr. is a fan favorite. If he doesn’t start for more than a few days in a row, the #FreeAlmora hash tag is bound to be out in full force. He’s young, charismatic, and has been flashing serious leather in recent games, so it’s easy to see why the fans love him. But can he continue to contribute at a high enough level to justify regular starts?”

The answer, Ms. Sauers, is in the question. Almora has continuously done more than enough to justify his regular place in the starting lineup. He’s hitting a team-leading .324, a solid 34 points ahead of 2016 MVP Kris Bryant. And compared with Ian Happ’s (forgive me) hapless fielding, my guy Almora regularly robs opposing players of extra base hits. Treat yourself to another viewing of his May 27 leap into the right center field gap at Wrigley, cheating Giants’ third baseman Evan Longoria of at least a double. Even if Almora Jr. wasn’t a terrific hitter (he is), I tend to side with the stereotyped middle-aged male crowd. Defense DOES win championships.

So what gives? Why does Joe Maddon so maddeningly (there I go again) refuse to give the 24 year-old the regular starting lineup love he’s earned? Writer Tony Andracki of NBC Sports Chicago calls it the Ian Happ-Albert Almora Jr. lineup conundrum. And Sauers continues in her piece:

“The Cubs rarely have to ask ‘who’s on first?’ but the question of who will start in the outfield is a hotly debated topic. Some do not agree with Joe Maddon’s regular changes in the lineup… Almora’s marked improvement is hard to ignore.”

Yet ignore it Maddon does. He may find the Almora versus Happ topic a “poor discussion,” but I’m not sure stubbornness becomes the leader of a team barely clinging to second place in the National League Central.

Come on Joe. There’s plenty of baseball left to play in 2018. But it’s hard to imagine the sustained surge needed to take and maintain first place, unless we #FreeAlmora.