The Foundation: Cougars learning to fight through adversity

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The Foundation: Cougars learning to fight through adversity
July 27, 2013, 9:15 am
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Tony Andracki

Baseball organizations base the success of their minor league teams on developing talent, not on win-loss records.

But winning breeds a new culture, and the Kane County Cougars have been struggling to pick up victories of late.

The Cubs' Low-A affiliate holds a Midwest League-worst 38-59 record on the season despite a 30-36 first half. But an 8-23 record (including 3-14 on the road) since the All-Star break has sunk Mark Johnson's squad.

While the results are not what Johnson or the Cubs front office want to see, there are still plenty of teaching moments to be had during rough times.

[MORE: Cubs' hopes hinge on developing pitching]

In a game where failing seven out of 10 times is an All-Star level, the Cougars are experiencing their first true adversity of their professional careers and working to come out better ballplayers for it.

The Cougars boast one of the youngest groups of positional players in the Midwest League, with 19-year-old third baseman Jeimer Candelario and 20-year-old second baseman Gioskar Amaya learning to handle their emotions and not let the struggles get to them.

"That's been an issue with a lot of guys here because it's a lot of young guys," Johnson said. "This is the first year they've gone through some adversity and failed at this game. It's been a battle with quite a few, but they're almost at the top of the mountain and they're looking at themselves and where they were in April, May and June.

"They're starting to make strides in that area and separating their offense and their defense. When they make a bad play or they strike out, they put it in their pockets and forget about it and move on. That's not easy to do when you're 19 or 20 in the Midwest League."

[RELATED: Cubs' prospect Almora brings 'stabilizing' presence to organization]

Amaya, arguably the Cubs' next best second base prospect behind Arismendy Alcantara, struggled to the tune of a .242 batting average in the first half, but has hit .349 with a .974 OPS since the All-Star break. The Venezuelan native has shown an ability to adapt to the game, drawing 12 walks in 28 second-half games compared to just 21 free passes in 59 contests to start the season.

"I'm trying to hit better pitches," Amaya said. "When the season started, I swung at too many bad pitches. I'm seeing better pitches now."

Amaya has seven walks in the last 10 games alone and credits Johnson and Cougars hitting coach Tom Beyers with helping him change his approach at the plate to fit 'The Cubs Way' Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have tried to instill in the system since taking over the team in late 2011.

"He's made a great turnaround," Beyers said of Amaya. "You have to give him a lot of credit. He's made an adjustment to his mechanics. It wasn't an easy thing.

"When guys are real comfortable with something and then they have to change it, there's a tough time they go through and he battled that. It's paying off."

[THE FOUNDATION: Cougars still learning 'The Cubs Way']

Candelario is one of the youngest players in the league, but ranks third in the MWL with 29 doubles and has a very solid 48:67 walk to strikeout ratio despite hitting just .251.

As Starlin Castro struggles with selectivity at the plate at the big-league level, discipline is something that has been instilled in Candelario from a young age.

"He sees the ball real well. He did that even in the Dominican [Republic]," Beyers said of Candelario, who was born in New York but moved to the D.R. around age six. "When I was roving and I saw him down there, he had discipline.

"Some guys come up in youth sprots and they're overly aggressive. Those guys, it's harder to come by. But with Candy, at a young age, he learned that was important. He's probably the other way -- at times too disciplined and late on fastballs. That's where he needs to improve on."

Candelario knows some of those doubles will leave the yard as he fills out his 6-foot-1 frame and also believes he will learn to move past frustrating slumps in less and less time as he matures.

"It's tough when you do everything right and it happens wrong [on the field]," he said. "You just have to keep doing it and work hard every day. That's the way to get out of a rough time."

Candelario and Amaya were both on the Boise Hawks last year, the Cubs' short-season affiliate that put together a nice playoff run with Johnson as the manager. With 2012 first-round pick Albert Almora and 2011 second-rounder Dan Vogelbach, the Cougars thought their postseason success would just carry over into the 2013 campaign, but they've learned the hard way things don't always work out like they're supposed to in this game.

[More from The Foundation: The Story of the 2013 Kane County Cougars]

"It's tough when you got all of them together and they're all struggling at one time," Johnson said. "They all kind of feed off each other anyways with their personalities and their youth.

"So it's development, but it's hard. This game is not easy. You have to learn how to separate yourself and take care of your business. Take care of what you do and don't always look to your left or your right and see what they're doing.

"[All I can do is] keep them in a good mindset and tell them to keep battling. One pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time, one play at a time and take it from there. And play each day like it's your last day."

Beyers, who spent more than two decades playing and coaching in the Dodgers organization, feels for the young Cougars but refuses to let the age act as an excuse. He encourages all the positional players to get their early work in any chance they can get, just as Amaya has done.

As the Cubs wait for the next wave of talent, Beyers knows you can't read too much into the record of a Low-A squad.

"I saw a team in the minor leagues one year lose 100 games and four or five guys ended up being quality players in the big leagues," Beyers said. "That's the nice part. Even if you can't find the wins out there on the field, the fans are still watching players that are going to play at Wrigley Field someday."

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