By Jay Cohen
MESA, Ariz. — Jon Jay and Albert Almora Jr. are Miami guys, born and raised. Jay played his college ball for Miami, and Almora committed to the Hurricanes before he signed with the Chicago Cubs out of high school.
Magic City, right in the middle of Wrigley Field.
The Cubs are hoping Jay and Almora can fill their hole in center field after Dexter Fowler became a free agent and signed with rival St. Louis. Jason Heyward also could slide over from right, but the No. 1 option for the defending World Series champions is a Miami duo who struck up a friendship during offseason training sessions.
“We’ve had a great relationship since,” Jay said before the Cubs worked out Thursday. “We texted last year during the playoffs and we keep tabs on each other, so it’s nice to be able to see him every day and have a familiar face that I have a good relationship with.”
Almora was selected by Chicago with the No. 6 pick in the 2012 amateur draft and made his major league debut last year, hitting .277 with three homers and 14 RBIs in 47 games. He played sparingly in the postseason but grabbed his own World Series moment with one daring dash in Cleveland.
Pinch-running for Kyle Schwarber in Game 7, Almora tagged up and took second when Kris Bryant flied to deep center for the first out of the 10th inning. After Anthony Rizzo was intentionally walked, Almora scored the go-ahead run on Ben Zobrist‘s double.
Almora’s athleticism and smart baserunning helped set up the inning for Chicago, which won its first championship since 1908.
“I’m a student of the game. I love learning,” he said, “so I always listen to everybody and I pick what I feel like that would help me personally.”
The next challenge for the 22-year-old Almora is becoming more disciplined at the plate. He had 20 strikeouts and five walks during his short time in the majors last year.
“Let him play, remind him about certain things, but I don’t think a guy like that you’re ever going to get that level of plate discipline that everybody talks about,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I think it’s going to get better, but he has a knack to put the ball in play, he doesn’t swing and miss a lot. So you got to pretty much ride his strengths if you like him, which I do.”
Jay, who turns 32 next month, finalized an $8 million, one-year contract with Chicago last November. He might have found more playing time with another team, but the lure of the Cubs’ success was too great to ignore.
“I like to win,” Jay said with a grin. “It’s all about winning. It’s all about fighting for that ring, getting to October. Last year was the first year I missed that and it was kind of hard watching it on TV.”
Jay made his major league debut with St. Louis in 2010 and spent six years with the Cardinals before he was traded to San Diego in December 2015. He batted .291 with two homers and 26 RBIs in 90 games in his only season with the Padres.
Jay gives Chicago another veteran presence and more championship experience, winning the World Series in 2011. He can play each of the outfield spots and hits from the left side, making for an ideal platoon possibility with the righty-batting Almora.
“He is a perfect fit. He is a perfect complement to Albert also,” Maddon said, “and then beyond that, just him. I’m getting to know him better. … Kind of a baseball gym rat kind of a thing.”
Maddon said he heard nice things about Jay from some of his former teammates and coaches, including praise for his baseball IQ — sounding a bit like another Miami guy on the Cubs.
“He’s been an established big league player for a long time,” said Almora, a Hialeah native. “He knows what it takes to win in the playoffs and that’s what we want, not just for myself but that’s what we want as a team. … It’s going to be a lot of fun this year.”