Almora poised to grow into everyday player

Almora poised to grow into everyday player

With Spring Training fast approaching, will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Cubs squad each day this week. Today's topic: Who Might Surprise?

MESA, Ariz. -- After a wild 2016 in which he got married, was promoted to the big leagues for the first time, welcomed his first child, and then scored the tie-breaking run in Game 7 of the World Series, what's next for Albert Almora Jr.? The young Cubs outfielder could be the surprise of Spring Training.

Almora will arrive in camp projected to share center field with new addition Jon Jay, although the veteran could be the reason the 22-year-old Almora takes over the job full time.

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One of the attractions in adding Jay, 31, was that he could be a mentor to Almora. The two have known each other for a few years. Both lived in the Miami area and have worked out together in the offseason since the Cubs selected Almora in the first round of the Draft in 2012. When Jay signed, Almora was one of the first to welcome him on Twitter.

"I've been trying to help him out for years," Jay said. "We have a good relationship, and this is a winning team and we'll do whatever it takes to win. That's what it's all about. I'm more than happy to be here for him and be part of this group of guys. They did an amazing thing last year, and I'm just trying to be part of the group."

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Last year, the Cubs won 103 games and ended the longest championship drought in pro sports by winning their first World Series since 1908. Jay already has a World Series ring from 2011, when he was on the Cardinals, so he knows what it takes.

Dexter Fowler patrolled center for the Cubs the past two seasons, giving the team a bona fide leadoff man for the first time in years. But Fowler is gone, having signed a five-year contract with St. Louis this offseason. Chicago has plenty of corner-outfield options with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist and even Kris Bryant.

Almora has always been known for his glovework -- he just has to show his bat is ready for the lineup. In 47 games this past season, he batted .277 with three home runs, nine doubles and 14 RBIs. He collected his first big league hit and RBI in the same at-bat, driving in Anthony Rizzo with a single in the eighth inning on June 8 against the Phillies.

Almora's first career knock

Could Almora lead off? He hasn't been used that way in the Minor Leagues, and he will probably hit lower in the order due to his career .322 on-base percentage in the Minors. Manager Joe Maddon has talked about slotting the pitcher in the No. 8 spot, and Almora could bat ninth. Jay will do whatever the Cubs want.

"The one thing with this lineup, it's so deep, I don't think it matters where you're hitting, you'll have great opportunities," Jay said. "I've hit first, second, deep in the order -- I'm just excited to be part of this offense, which is super talented."

The 2016 season was Almora's first at Triple-A, and he batted .303 in 80 games there. He has a career .290 average in the Minors, and now it's time to show what he can do at the big league level.

Jay is there to guide him.

"He really understands how this all works," Jay said. "We don't know what's going to happen. It's a long year. We want that same goal."

They shared something else in 2016. Almora welcomed his son, Ayden John, in August. Jay signed with the Cubs on Nov. 29, and the next day, his wife, Nikki, gave birth to twin girls. They'll have plenty to talk about.

Spring Training begins on Feb. 15, with pitchers' and catchers' workouts at Sloan Park in Mesa, Ariz. Full-squad drills get underway on Feb. 18.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.