The Foundation: Hope drives the 2013 Kane County Cougars

The Foundation: Hope drives the 2013 Kane County Cougars

April 16, 2013, 4:15 pm
Tony Andracki

Hope.

There's no shortage of it in minor league baseball, as young men go out each and every day hoping to fulfill their lifelong dreams.

There's also no shortage of hope among the Cubs fanbase, as millions of people have adopted the "Wait 'til Next Year" mantra.

This spring, those two groups have merged at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva, Ill., where the Kane County Cougars play their home games. 2013 marks the first season the Cougars are affiliated with the Cubs, providing an outlet for fans to catch a glimpse of top prospects just an hour from Wrigley Field.

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The guys stepping between the foul lines donning the Cougars/Cubs hybrid logos are the future. They carry with them the promise of better days at the corner of Clark and Addison.

Sure, the odds are stacked against all 25 players making it to The Show someday, but that's not what matters right now. This is the start of it all. The Foundation.

"The Cubs are going to win a World Series soon," Cougars first baseman Dan Vogelbach said. "I really think that. I don't just say that because I'm in the organization. Things are going in the right direction."

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It's hard not to be swept up in that kind of optimism, which is on full display with this young Cougars team. Most of the guys on Kane County's roster this year were part of the Boise Hawks last year, the short-season Cubs affiliate that nearly won a championship.

The entire starting infield -- Vogelbach, third baseman Jeimer Candelario, shortstop Marco Hernandez, second baseman Gioskar Amaya and designated hitter/first baseman Rock Shoulders -- were promoted from Boise and will get a taste of their first full season of professional baseball, along with pitchers Pierce Johnson and Michael Heesch, both part of the Cubs' run on young arms in the 2012 draft.

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Johnson, 21, was selected in the supplemental round (43rd overall) coming out of Missouri State University, but may have gone in the Top 30 were it not for a forearm injury that scared some teams off.

Heesch is a local product, having attended high school at Prairie Ridge, where he won a state championship in 2008. Heesch, an eighth-round pick in 2012, is originally from Crystal Lake, but his parents now live in Bartlett. He also spent two-and-a-half years playing for the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Vogelbach has appeared on a slew of Cubs top prospect lists and will be joined by Albert Almora, the sixth overall pick in 2012 and consensus Top 3 prospect in the organization, when the centerfielder returns from injury in a few weeks.

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Mark Johnson will be calling the shots in the dugout after two years as the manager of the Boise Hawks.

Johnson, 37, brings with him a Crash Davis-like pedigree, having spent 17 years in professional baseball as a catcher, including 300 games in the major leagues. The White Sox made him a first-round pick in the 1994 Draft and he spent parts of three minor-league seasons with the Cubs.

"MJ's the man," Vogelbach said. "He's a younger guy and he knows how the game is played. He brings a spirit out in everybody and he knows the right way to go about things. It's always good when you go out to the field and you want to be there because of your head coach."

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The trick for Johnson will be balancing development with a successful product on the field.

"You hope they learn to win through development," Johnson said. "Part of development is winning. That's the main objective in minor-league baseball -- develop to win and win to develop. It's a mixture of both.

"You can develop physically all you want, but if the kids don't know how to win, you're defeating the purpose...You do all the physical stuff and fundamental stuff early for developing and then for the game, it's all about winning the ballgame."