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Cougars: Skipper eases into spring training

Published: Saturday, March 9, 2013 5:33 a.m.CDT • Updated: Saturday, March 9, 2013 9:53 a.m.CDT

Cougars manager Mark Johnson spent the end of his first week at the parent Cubs spring training facility in Mesa, Ariz., relaxing at his nearby rental home.

Friday afternoon workouts ended an hour or two early as substantial rain again swept through the area.

“Yeah,” Johnson said. “It’s like an El Nio year down here.”

Apart from the weather, the man charged with aiding in the development of several prized nios in the Cubs farm system otherwise described the beginning of minor league camp as “status quo.”

Following are a few more tidbits from Johnson from a Friday phone interview:

• Johnson managed the Cubs’ affiliate at Short-A Boise (Idaho) the past two seasons, guiding the Hawks to the Northwest League championship series in 2012.

While he’s familiar with a handful of potential 2013 Cougars from his time at Boise – namely top prospects Albert Almora (outfield) and Dan Vogelbach (first base) – Johnson can’t quite tip his cap to which players will be part of the Opening Day lineup at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark next month.

“The teams, they’re literally not set until a day or two before we break camp,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s kind of spread out right now, working in groups they might not necessarily be in right now.

“Everybody’s doing the same fundamentals, the same work. Once the games start [March 15] and guys get sent down from big league camp, you’ll get a little closer to the groups that you’re going to have.”

• The Cubs’ annual bunting tournament creates its share of spring training buzz in big league camp. To date, farmhands have not tried to recreate their own with a copycat event.

“No, we don’t have one,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if we’re going to have one, which is always possible. We’re always teaching competition and things like that. We’ve always got little competitions going, but I haven’t heard of a bunting contest yet.”

• Johnson, entering his third spring training in the Cubs organization, has rented the same Gilbert, Ariz., home each March.

With the Cubs planning to move from HoHoKam Park to a new facility in Mesa next spring training, he’s been hearing all manner of rumors about 2014 accommodation changes.

“It’s still a good set-up here,” Johnson said. “The players stay at the Mezona [Inn], which is pretty close to the ballpark.”

The Oakland A’s, a former Cougars parent club, are set to move in to a renovated HoHoKam in 2015.

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