Off the field, the Cubs new affiliation with the Kane County Cougars was a huge success last year. Attendance at Cougars games was up 4%, which is awfully good considering they didn't have that many extra seats to sell in the first place. For the Cubs, they got to play closer to home and in front of much bigger crowds, as Kane County's attendance in 2013 was more than double the number of fans who saw the Peoria Chiefs in 2012. (This news wasn't bad for Peoria either as their attendance increased 10% with their new affiliation with the Cardinals, although they still drew nearly 200,000 fewer fans than Kane County did.) Fifth Third Bank Park in Geneva is a first-rate minor league park.
On the field, however, things didn't go so well. The Cougars finished the season at 55-80. Their top prospect, Albert Almora, missed over half the season and is off to Daytona now. Their next best two prospects, Pierce Johnson and Dan Vogelbach, headed off to Daytona for the pennant-winning stretch drive down there. With Boise winning games and Kane County badly slumping, the Cubs kept most of the top players in Boise all season, so Kane County didn't get many reinforcements.
Mark Johnson will be the Cougars manager for the second straight season. The pitching coach is David Rosario and the hitting coach is Tom Beyers.
Luckily, because that's the way these things go, Kane County got a lot of talent this season from a Boise team that made the playoffs last season.
Pitching is likely to be a strength of this year's Cougars. The top pitching prospect, and the one you're going to want to see when you take your trip out to Geneva, is 20 year old right-hander Paul Blackburn. Blackburn has the classic No. 3 starter profile with a low to mid 90s fastball, an above average curve and changeup. When I saw him in Boise early last summer, he was pretty unhittable. However, he wore down later in the season and he started having fits of wildness, after his control had been a strength earlier in the year. So that's something to be on the lookout for if you head out to Geneva to watch him pitch.
Another strong starting pitching prospect is right-hander Tyler Skulina. Skulina, a fourth round pick out of Kent State last year, is a big man with a power slider. He pitched very well in Boise, giving up only two earned runs over 15 innings there, before getting promoted to Kane County. Skulina didn't pitch well in Geneva, but he was probably tired between all the work he'd done in college and in Boise. His size and that he has four pitches indicates to me that he should be able to stay as a starter, despite what were probably stamina issues last year.
Another guy who was really good in Boise but struggled on his promotion to Kane County last year was James Pugliese. But Pugliese struggled in Boise in 2012 and he made the adjustments he needed to succeed the next year. I wouldn't bet against him repeating that feat this year in Kane County.
The most interesting prospect, however, is Taiwanese right-hander Jen-Ho Tseng. Tseng was the third of the big international signings last June, after Dominican Eloy Jimenez and Venezuelan Gleybar Torres. Coming into 2013, Tseng was considered the top international pitching prospect, but his stock dropped after a poor showing in the World Baseball Classic. But this spring he looked to be back to his 2012 self and the Cubs are having the 19 year old make his professional debut in the Midwest League. That's an aggressive placement and with how cautious the new front office has been in such matters, that's a sign to me that the Cubs are confident he'll thrive in the Midwest League.
Then come the two massive disappointments. The Cubs gave Cuban left-hander Gerardo Concepcion a six million dollars and a major league contract in 2012, but I've seen nothing in his pitching that indicates to me that he was worth that kind of money. Pitching for Peoria in 2012, he was flat out terrible. Last season he spent the whole year in Arizona. Whether he was injured or they were just trying to fix whatever was wrong in 2013, I don't know. But he only pitched 3.2 innings in rookie ball last year.
The other disappointment was Juan Carlos Paniagua. His story is a long one and it revolves around his inability to prove his age or name. (Although no one has proven his name and age are wrong, either.) But in 2012 he was one of the most electric arms in the system and he could regularly hit 97-98 mph on the radar gun. But he missed half of last season as his name problems delayed his visa until July. When he did get stateside, his velocity was barely hitting 90. He looked terrible. Here's hoping 2013 was just a bad dream for Paniagua.
Jose Arias is a guy who didn't pitch much in 2013, but he was pretty good for Boise in 2012. I assume he was injured last season, but I don't know for sure. He did get in four games in Kane County last year, although the results weren't good.
Right-hander Zack Godley was a tenth-round pick last season. He throws hard and was simply excellent out of the pen for Boise last year. Sixth-round pick, righthander Scott Frazier, doesn't throw quite as hard as Godley and didn't have quite as good a year, but he was pretty darn good nonetheless. He does need to work on his control.
Justin Amlung is back for his second season in the Cougars bullpen, Nineteen year-old Daury Torrez got one start for Kane County last year, but mostly pitched in Mesa last year where he showed some promise.
Most of the talk on offense is going to be about the outfield, where there are four players all worthy of starting. The one that is going to generate the most interest is Shawon Dunston Jr., the son of the Cubs legend. However, other than a slight physical resemblance, Dunston Jr. is not much like his father. They're both fast, I guess there's that. Dunston Jr. is a left-handed outfielder who is mostly a singles and doubles hitter. Defensively, he's raw but can cover a lot of ground. He's got a good arm, although it's certainly not as good as his father's. (That's not much of a flaw as Robocop didn't have an arm as good as Dunston.)
But what really distinguishes Dunston from his father is his approach at the plate. After bombing out in his first time in Boise in 2012, he came back last season with a new dedication and a new approach at the plate. He's an incredibly selective hitter and he actually walked more times last season than he struck out. I actually saw Shawon Dunston walk three times in a game, a phrase that had never been uttered before. If he can keep his batting average up, Dunston profiles as a leadoff hitter.
But he's not even the best leadoff hitting prospect on the Cougars. That honor goes to Jacob Hannemann, whose tools Cubs officials have compared to Jacoby Ellsbury's, according to Baseball America. Hannemann only played 17 games last season before getting shut down with an elbow injury (which I heard wasn't serious but the Cubs just didn't see the need to hurry him back to action). He's considered a superior athlete who was a cornerback on the BYU football team. His speed is plus and he has the ability to drive the ball to all fields with some authority. A lot of people are very excited about his potential, He's a little older than most of his teammates because of his two-year Mormon mission, so I'd expect the Cubs to be a little more aggressive with him. If you want to see him play, get out to Kane County early.
If Trey Martin makes the major leagues, it's because he's an excellent defensive center fielder. He missed most of last season with a shoulder injury. Yasiel Balaguert is a corner outfielder with some pop, hitting eight home runs in 238 ABs last year for Boise. He's got a bit too much of a swing-and-miss in his game for my tastes, but he can take a walk and the ball makes a really nice sound when he connects.
On the infield, the biggest name, and likely the best prospect, is Danny Lockhart, the son of former Braves major leaguer and current Cubs scout Keith Lockhart. He's a solid defensive second baseman who bats left-handed. Unlike Dunston, Lockhart's baseball skills are almost exactly identical to his father's and his ceiling is having a career like his dad's.
Carlos Penalver is a raw but very talented defensive shortstop that people up in Boise last season told me to keep an eye on. He didn't hit much last year, but he was only 19. If he can gain some consistency on defense and get on base a little more, he might be a prospect we'll be talking about a lot more this time next year.
Jacob Rogers is a giant left-handed hitting first baseman who is returning to the Midwest League after playing 16 games for Peoria in 2012. Rogers hit eight home runs last year in 259 ABs in Boise and finished with a triple slash line of .278/.394/.413.
David Bote is a utility infielder who hit .227/.330/.336 last year. Jordan Hankins is the third baseman. He hit .230/.283/.296 after being drafted in the 11th round last year. The Cubs signed Daniel Canela out of the independent Frontier League. That's about all I know about him.
As I noted in the Daytona review, catching is a weak spot in the Cubs organization, which is probably why Ben Carhart is a catcher now. Carhart wasn't going to make the majors as a corner infielder, so he's going to see if catching might be a path to the majors.
The Cubs drafted Will Remillard in the 19th round last year, but he spent the entire season on the disabled list. He'll make his professional debut with Kane County. He's supposedly a good defensive catcher. Cael Brockmeyer is really too big and awkward to make it as a catcher. He should be a pretty good hitter with some pop, but he struggled in Boise last year.