Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
March 20, 2017
MESA, Ariz. — Over boxes stacked like skyscrapers and through tightening bonds that would lead to roommate arrangements, you could see the seeds beginning to sprout toward an eventual path to glory.
As the Chicago Cubs’ brass sat in the nearly empty stands of their spring complex here during the Arizona Fall League in 2013, there were moments when they could barely stand the anticipation.
“For us in the office, it was really exciting,” Jason McLeod, Chicago’s senior vice president of scouting and player development, says. “Really, and this is no B.S., I’m getting goose bumps just thinking back to that time.
“Now we have two full years under our belt of what we were trying to get done, and we were excited about the players we had acquired. And…that was even before we drafted and signed Kris Bryant. We thought, ‘This is going to be a fun offseason.'”
Four months after the Cubs made Bryant the second overall pick in that June’s draft, Bryant, Albert Almora Jr., Jorge Soler and Addison Russell were in uniform for the Mesa Solar Sox in front of president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and McLeod. Russell was still property of the Oakland Athletics; the Cubs were some eight or nine months away from acquiring him in a heist that in previous generations would have landed the Chicago executives in Alcatraz.
For the Cubs, 2013 had been a throwaway summer that essentially served little purpose other than as a growing season for the coming crop of prospects. At the major league level, the team mostly was unwatchable, finishing 66-96 and firing manager Dale Sveum at season’s end.
But things were happening beneath the surface that would provide the foundation for the franchise’s smashing its 108-year World Series drought last November.
Javier Baez was among a handful of Cubs prospects who offered the team hope that better seasons were ahead than their 66-96 2013.Chris Carlson/Associated Press/Associated Press
That spring, Baez announced himself by walloping four home runs, knocking in 10 runs and compiling a .908 on-base percentage during Cactus League play. There was no way he was going to break camp with the Cubs because he was only 20 and had not yet played above the Class A level. But a clubhouse full of major leaguers, including second-year big leaguer Anthony Rizzo, took notice. Beyond a few cursory interactions, though, Baez and Rizzo remained on different levels and didn’t quite get to know each other yet.
“Because he wasn’t [going to be] on the team that year,” Rizzo says. “That was my second year here. First year, you just try to remember names. The second year, you just try to get more comfortable. I knew he was good.”
Oh, there was no mistaking that Baez was going to be good.
“Players read all of those [minor league] rankings,” McLeod says. “They know the names. For Anthony to see it, I’m sure it was good to put the face with the name. Javy is comfortable in his own skin. I’m sure it was, ‘Who is this guy showing up with an MLB tattoo on his back?’ But when you watch him, you see how much fun he has.”
Watching him in Class A in 2012, the Cubs’ decision-makers saw the sheer, raw talent.
“But speaking for myself, he was still an unknown,” McLeod says. “For all of the dazzling things he could do, there was still the sense that he was out of control at the plate. There was still the question of will the discipline ever come along?
“Some of the pitches he swung at, it was, like, ‘Javy, what are you doing?'”
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
By the end of spring camp in 2013, Baez had erased many of those unknowns. Then he went out that summer and slammed 37 homers and collected 111 RBI in 130 games combined at Class A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. Come autumn, Baez skipped the Arizona Fall League by mutual decision between him and the Cubs. He was too fatigued and needed rest.
By then, Bryant was in the fold, and he did go to the Fall League.
“I remember he wasn’t signed with an endorsement company at the time,” says C.J. Cron, the Los Angeles Angels’ first baseman and a member of the ’13 Mesa Solar Sox. “And every day, there would be, like, 20 boxes at his locker. Adidas shoes, or whatever company was trying to recruit him.”
Cron didn’t even score any of Bryant’s leftover swag.
“No, man, he was selfish about it,” Cron says, laughing. “We all poked fun at him.”
Bryant, who still carries himself in many ways like an overgrown kid even after winning last year’s National League Most Valuable Player Award, took it all in good fun, just as those who know him well would expect.
“I remember that vividly,” Almora says, laughing. “I think the boxes reached all the way up to the top of his locker. He was about to sign with Adidas, and at the time, Adidas was not very popular in the baseball world. We were, like, ‘Adidas? Aw, c’mon, man.’
Almora, who is expected to get the majority of time replacing Dexter Fowler in center field this summer, was the club’s first first-round pick after the Cubs’ new regime took control in November 2011. The club chose Almora sixth overall out of Mater Academy Charter High School in Hialeah Gardens, Florida.
“I think the first game he played that fall he went 4-for-4 (actually 4-for-5) with a home run,” Bryant says. “It was, like, man, this guy’s crazy; he’s really, really good.
“Then I got to know him, and he’s a fun guy and one of my best friends on the team now. I really enjoy being around him. He’s going to be a superstar because he cares, and he wants it really bad. I recognized that in the fall league. What he’s doing now is nothing new to me.”
Soon after he was drafted second overall in 2013, Kris Bryant made an impression in the fall league locker room with stacks of sneakers he received from Adidas.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press/Associated Press
Also at that first game Bryant was referring to: Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod.
“Albert hits the first pitch of the first game for a leadoff homer, just a bomb to left field,” McLeod says. “Theo and I turned to each other, and we were like, ‘Wow, we could be really good in a couple of years.'”
As the second-youngest player in the Arizona Fall League at 19 that autumn, Almora batted .307 with a homer and 12 RBI in 21 games and was named to the West Division Fall Stars team.
“There was such a huge sense of optimism in the organization with what was going on. That was the time we finally started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Something else was going on that fall too: Cubs family ties were being solidified. That next spring, in 2014, Bryant and Almora became roommates.
“The fall league really helped us out establishing that relationship so we could get to be closer in the spring and now,” says Bryant, who was named as the Arizona Fall League MVP in ’13 after hitting safely in 17 of 20 games and hitting .364 with 15 extra-base hits.
Was Almora the kind of roommate who, ahem, was neat and tidy?
“He was a great roommate,” Bryant says. “He was awesome. And he didn’t go to college either. It was crazy how mature he was; it was almost like he did go to college. He did the whole live-on-your-own thing for a long time. He was 18 at the time, or 19. I was very surprised, just the way he handled himself.”
“We were really clean,” Almora says. “And we laughed a lot.
“And he had just signed with Adidas by then, so he had 100,000 shoes. He would organize them all.”
So there they were, becoming best buddies, a white kid from Las Vegas who played three years of baseball at the University of San Diego as a finance major and a Cuban kid from Miami who signed as a professional right out of high school.
No doubt, Almora had matured early because he spent plenty of time traveling while playing for the 18U Pan-Am National Team. It was with that team Almora met a kid from across the state of Florida in Pace named Addison Russell.
Albert Almora’s breakout performance in the 2013 Arizona Fall League gave the Cubs’ front office confidence it was building a roster that might soon contend for a title.Matt York/Associated Press/Associated Press
“Me and Addy have had a good relationship since back then,” Almora says.
But neither he nor Bryant had any clue while playing alongside Russell for the Solar Sox in the fall of ’13 that on July 5, 2014, the Cubs would steal him from Oakland in the Jeff Samardzija trade.
The Athletics had picked Russell just five spots behind Almora in the 2012 draft, 11th overall.
“I remember looking at Addison that fall and thinking he would never be on our team,” Bryant says. “I always thought he was going to be on the A’s. He was a can’t-miss prospect in the Arizona Fall League. I was so surprised by the trade and happy.
“I always knew he was going to be good from the fall league days just watching his at-bats, how hard he hit the ball, defense, the whole deal.”
Russell’s skills that fall, however, made one person in the stands very uncomfortable.
“I’ll throw myself under the bus here,” McLeod says. “Obviously, I oversee the draft, and we didn’t spend a ton of time on Addison.”
The early reports at the time were that Russell had gotten heavy in high school, so the Cubs gave him only a cursory look.
From the stands watching the Solar Sox, McLeod realized things had changed quickly with Russell.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Oh, no. Uh-oh,'” McLeod says. “I’m sitting there with Theo and Jed, and here’s this dynamic player in the middle of the field, a shortstop, showing plus bat speed a year-and-a-half after the draft.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m sitting here with my bosses, and they’re going to say why didn’t we spend more time with this guy?'”
Drafted a few spots behind Almora, Addison Russell impressed the Cubs so much in the 2013 Arizona Fall League that they traded for him less than a year later.Michael Zagaris/Getty Images
That fall, acquiring Russell became a high priority for the Cubs. And it took them less than a year to land him.
“I remember checking my phone and getting a text from Albert: ‘Hey, welcome to the team. This is a great opportunity. I can’t wait to play with you again,'” Russell says.
Still only 23 today, Russell says he viewed the deal as an opportunity not simply to join a new organization but to size up the business side of the game and “see how getting traded works.”
In Arizona in the fall of ’13, Russell got his first look at Bryant.
“Kind of the same guy, only he’s way more poised now,” Russell says. “I remember seeing him take batting practice, and it wasn’t like everyone else took batting practice. He was already way ahead of the game.”
As things turned out, the Cubs were way ahead of the game in stocking their organization with a dazzling array of prospects.
In so many areas, Chicago has come a long way since Baez’s breakout spring training to start 2013 and the Solar Sox’s AFL exploits that fall. There is the obvious, the 2016 World Series trophy, clinched when Almora scored the winning run in Game 7 after entering as a pinch runner. And, the not-so-obvious: They are no longer spring roommates, and despite their youth, they are no longer kids. Almora was married last July to a woman Krystal, and she’s since given birth to son Ayden John. In January, Bryant got married himself to longtime girlfriend Jessica Delp in their hometown of Las Vegas.
“Seeing his face when Jessica was coming down the aisle, it’s a part of Kris that I’ve never seen before,” Almora says. “You’ve seen him laughing and happy, but now he was crying happy.”
Almora says he couldn’t help but get choked up in that moment as well.
“You say, ‘Come on, this is ridiculous,'” he says, chuckling. “And then that first dance…”
It was the first time Almora and Bryant had seen each other since the World Series parade, and there were so many smiles and even more memories.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.