The Foundation: Kane County Cougars kick off 2013

The Foundation: Kane County Cougars kick off 2013
April 4, 2013, 2:45 pm
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Tony Andracki

If MLB Opening Day should be a national holiday, minor league Opening Day should at least be a half day or something. Especially this season for Cubs fans.

Thursday marks the Kane County Cougars' first game as part of the Cubs organization. Kane County, the Cubs' Low-A affiliate, sits just 40 miles from Wrigley Field, allowing Cubs fans to catch a glimpse of the future in the Chicagoland suburbs.

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"Being next to Chicago is a really big thing and I think everybody's excited," first base prospect Dan Vogelbach said. "It's a really good experience. We're going to get a little taste of how good the fanbase is out there and how dedicated [the front office is] to the minors.

"They're really buying into the minor-league system and they're really taking their time and putting their effort into us and that's a big deal."

[MORE: In Vogelbach, Cubs could already have their DH of the future]

Local product Michael Heesch remembers the days when the Cougars were affiliated with the Marlins, Athletics and Royals, and agrees that the link to the Cubs will be something to behold.

"The fact that it's the Cubs now, it'd kind of a big deal," Heesch, a Crystal Lake, Ill., native. "The fact it's right down the street and that this is kind of the start of everything, I think it's good for the fans to see. Especially now, with the new management and where the organization is going.

"It's good it's so close so people can come down here and say 'I saw Pierce Johnson when he was in Low-A pitching and now he's in the big leagues.' That's cool.

"It's good for the guys [on the team] to understand what it means to play for the Cubs, to play for the city of Chicago. Its different than any other team, with the history and some of the disappointments and the tradition. It's good for them to see it. You really don't get that in Tennessee (Double-A) and Daytona (High-A). But here, you're going to see it because people are Cubs fans, even though they're coming to watch the Cougars.

Those fans that do make the trek to Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva, Ill., will see some of the Cubs' top prospects donning Cougars uniforms throughout the 2013 season.

The infield on the Opening Day roster is particularly stacked, with Vogelbach, a second-round pick in 2011; third baseman Jeimer Candelario; shortstop Marco Hernandez; and second baseman Gioskar Amaya all getting some love on organizational top prospect lists. Vogelbach was named to the Cubs' Top 10 by such outlets as Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs.

Then there's speedy outfielder Trey Martin, who earned a nod at No. 20 on MLB.com's list in No. 15 on FanGraphs' version. Centerfielder Albert Almora, the first draft pick of the new regime and the top prospect in the organization by some standards, is also expected to join Kane County at some point in 2013, when he returns from a broken hamate bone.

[FOLLOW: @CubsTalkCSN for Twitter coverage of Cougars all season]

The pitching staff also bears watching with Heesch and first-round pick Johnson -- both 2012 selections -- and Rule 5 pick Lendy Castillo, who spent time with the big-league club last season. Other prospects figure to be making their way through Kane County this season, too.

Mark Johnson, a former catcher for the White Sox, and Ron Villone, a 15-year MLB veteran, will act as Kane County's manager and pitching coach, respectively.

Comcast SportsNet will provide coverage of the Cougars all season in the online video series "The Foundation" as well as with featured content on CubsTalk. Follow along for a behind-the-scenes look as "The Cubs Way" takes effect in the low levels of the organization.