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Cougars’ fans get early pulse on Cubs’ future

Published: Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 5:37 a.m. CST • Updated: Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 8:00 a.m. CST

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GENEVA – Cubs farmhand Jorge Soler blasted a towering home run at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in September as a member of the Peoria Chiefs.

The Cougars signed a two-year player-development contract with the Cubs a few weeks later, prompting baseball fans throughout the region to wonder whether Soler would make Fifth Third his home launching pad in 2013.

Reporters leaned in Friday as Cubs vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod addressed the possible haul of prospects that would descend on Geneva in two months.

Submitting index cards, a throng of fans soon asked the same during the Q&A portion of the Cougars’ “Meet the Cubs” party.

McLeod’s answer: While there will be talent in the western suburbs this season, he can’t name names, or even durations.

“Ultimately, the players let you know when they’re ready to go,” McLeod said. “But we’re certainly not going to hold anyone back if he’s just dominating the competition and he’s not being challenged and he’s meeting the things that we lay out for him as a player.”

If the natural minor league progression holds, several 2012 contributors from the Cubs’ affiliate at Short-A Boise (Idaho) will come to Kane County for their next professional seasons. The Hawks advanced to the Northwest League championship last season under manager Mark Johnson, who was promoted to the same role with the Cougars.

Short of hearing them from Fifth Third public address announcer Kevin Sullivan on Opening Day April 4, the names on fans’ lips before and during dinner in the stadium super suite included Albert Almora (outfield) and Dan Vogelbach (first base).

Baseball America recently tabbed Almora as the Cubs’ No. 2 prospect, one slot behind shortstop Javier Baez, who also spent time in Peoria last season before advancing to High-A Daytona (Fla.).

McLeod and director of player development Brandon Hyde acknowledged the excitement swirling around the Kane County partnership, especially given Geneva’s proximity to Chicago.

As Cubs executives – namely president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer – continue to preach winning through the player development-centric “Cubs Way,” McLeod still stressed the importance of patience in the minor leagues.

“Certainly, the Kane County Cougars want to provide a very good experience for families, but it’s not only about that. You guys want to win, too, and set off fireworks at the end of the game,” McLeod said. “We want winning ballplayers in the organization, so certainly winning is definitely part of development.

“For us, it’s not going to trump their individual skills that we need them to work on. Because ultimately, we’re trying to win 45 miles up the road from here. It’s a balance, for sure.”

A few more tidbits from Friday’s event:

Come closer: McLeod and Hoyer worked with Epstein in Boston, where Epstein was general manager of World Series-winning clubs in 2004 and 2007.

With the Cubs attempting a similar makeover to a longstanding losing culture, McLeod discussed another important parallel between the Cubs and Red Sox.

A handful of Red Sox affiliates are close to Boston, including Short-A Lowell (Mass.), Double-A Portland (Maine) and Triple-A Pawtucket (R.I.).

By the time players ascended to the big leagues, McLeod said, they “weren’t as deer-in-the-headlights” because they had excelled in the shadows of the major market they were aspiring to reach.

Hyde experienced a similar arrangement during nine seasons as a coach in the Miami Marlins system.

“For a young player having people come in and evaluate him, it can be nerve-racking at times,” Hyde said. “To kind of get used to that is a huge deal, when the GM or whoever it may be is there on a Tuesday night and they see them sitting behind home plate. If you can get used to that, the game becomes a lot easier. And just to have that access of the energy of the big league club as well as the major league guys, major league front office, it can only benefit the player.”

Big fan: Mark Regole sported a blue Marmion alumni hoodie and a Mesa, Ariz., Cubs spring training cap at Friday’s banquet, but the Geneva resident certainly had plenty of black, green and gold Cougars apparel on reserve at home.

Regole has been a Cougars season ticket holder since the club moved to Geneva from Wausau, Wis., before the 1991 season. Like many, his rationale for following the team – regardless of its big league affiliation – stemmed from convenience. Before the Cougars arrived, Regole traveled to Wrigley Field several times each season.

“I told myself there’s no sense of going to Chicago anymore,” Regole said. “I might as well just stay here, man.”

Last month, Cougars general manager Curtis Haug said season ticket sales had climbed by “a large percentage” from last season. Full season, 70-game rates cost $665 for a box seat and $542.50 for a reserved bleacher seat.

For more information or to purchase tickets, call the Cougars at 232-8811 or log on to www.kccougars.com.

Extra bases: Johnson, who spends offseasons in Georgia, played part of eight major league seasons as a catcher. He made his MLB debut with the White Sox in 1998, and played 302 games with the club. “It’s kind of like a ‘Welcome home’ in a way,” he said of his coming to the Cougars. “From a long time ago.” ...

Cubs manager Dale Sveum and first base coach Dave McKay keep offseason homes near Phoenix, and worked informally with several Cubs prospects during the Arizona Fall League. If the Cubs have a home matinee before a Cougars night game, both could be spotted at Fifth Third, along with other Cubs coaches. “I guarantee that on their own they’re going to be making trips with no fanfare. Just making a trip to come see somebody,” Hyde said. ...

The Jesse White Tumblers will perform after each Saturday home game from May 4 to Aug. 31.

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