GENEVA – Cougars center fielder Albert Almora returned home to south Florida this week by order of the parent Cubs, ending the prized prospect's first full professional season.
The Cubs want their first-round draft pick of 2012 rehabbing his injured groin away from the day-to-day rigors of clubhouse life. Extra energy can't hurt with either instructional ball or the Arizona Fall League on the horizon.
"It's good for him to get home and rest and be with his family for four weeks," Cougars manager Mark Johnson said. "And then go back to Arizona and wrap it back up and get ready for one of the two leagues."
Johnson expects the Cubs to inform Almora, 19, of his destination within about a week. Instructional league, typically reserved for younger players or prospects converting to different positions, begins Sept. 22. The more renowned Arizona Fall League opens play Oct. 8.
Mesa, Ariz., the Cubs' spring training home, has venues in both leagues. Almora hasn't played since Aug. 4, when he left a game in Clinton with what the Cougars are calling a bruised bone in his groin. Joining the team in May, Almora batted .329 with 17 doubles and 23 RBIs in 61 games after breaking the hamate bone in his hand during spring training.
Speaking before the Cougars' 4-0 loss to Beloit Thursday night, Johnson reflected on life in both fall programs. He has managed in instructional ball the past two seasons and twice played in the Arizona Fall League as a White Sox catching prospect before landing in the majors in 1998.
These days, Johnson is climbing the ranks as a manager. Like many of the Cougars – who at 50-74 are three defeats from setting the franchise's single-season loss record – he's in his first full season after guiding Short-A Boise from 2011-12.
"It's been a tough season. We've lost a lot of tough games. In the first half, we lost a lot of leads," Johnson said. "It's been a challenging but a rewarding year in both senses, because I've learned a lot from it, and I've got a lot of things I'm going to take from it and build off of it. And I'm better from it. Even though the record doesn't show it, I'm going to be a better manager and I think they're going to be better players from a season like this."
Resolve emerged as a theme elsewhere in the clubhouse Thursday. Cubs right-hander Scott Baker rejoined the team from Advanced-A Daytona as he continues rehabbing from April 2012 Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow. He's set to start tonight against Beloit (71-58), and expects to be on a four-inning or 65-pitch limit.
Baker made three rehab starts with the Cougars in July, going 0-2 with a 13.50 ERA in 8 2/3 innings. He started just twice with Daytona, as a series of rainouts disrupted his schedule and eventually prompted a seven-day shutdown.
"I think it's been a slower process than we would all have liked it to have gone, but it is what it is at this point," Baker said. "I'll just continue to try to get some of that arm strength back and basically build up the pitch count. It's a work in progress, for sure, but I'm definitely feeling physically stronger since it has been such a long time since I pitched in a baseball game."
Baker has not pitched in the majors since September 2011 with Minnesota. He said he has not been given official word by the Cubs, but expects to remain in the minors until the season ends after Labor Day, and then be re-evaluated.
Earlier Thursday, 2013 Cubs draftees Rob Zastryzny (second-round left-hander) and Tyler Skulina (fourth-round right-hander) were placed on the disabled list after reaching their season innings limits.
Both players were drafted out of college and will be shut down until instructional league.
"Pretty much the same routine," Skulina said, "just not throwing off the hill or anything."
Zastryzny and Skulina were a piggyback tandem for three games in Kane County. In what turned out to be their final home appearance, Zastryzny pitched 3 2/3 innings of one-run relief after Skulina struggled against Clinton Tuesday night.
That came close to the stratosphere of Almora's Fifth Third Bank Ballpark swan song, a 3 for 5 game against Wisconsin on Aug. 2.
The Cougars' 2014 home opener is April 8 against Fort Wayne, but most expect Almora will be elsewhere.
Cougars (RHP Scott Baker, 0-2, 13.50 ERA) vs. Beloit (RHP Deyvi Jimenez, 2-4, 7.17 ERA), 6:30 p.m. today, AM-1280
Thursday’s crowd of 4,829 pushed the Cougars’ season total to 368,798 fans in 62 home games. Kane County attracted 331,625 fans through the same span last season.
The Cougars distributed 2014 schedules – minus the yet-to-be determined promotional slate – and will open their second season as a Cubs affiliate April 3 at Quad Cities. The home opener is set for 6:30 p.m. April 8 against Fort Wayne.
The Cougars will host former Cubs affiliate Peoria over Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends and also entertain the Chiefs from July 1-3. Kane County will spend Independence Day on the road in Clinton.
Nancy Faust returns to the organ on Sunday home games from May 4 to Aug. 31, while the high-flying Jesse White Tumblers are back with Saturday postgame performances from May 3 to Aug. 30.
Cubs brass will be excited because
Cougars left fielder Trevor Gretzky singled in each of his four at-bats, giving him five hits in his five plate appearances dating to Wednesday.
The son of NHL legend Wayne Gretzky joined the team earlier this month after batting .256 in 27 games at Short-A Boise.
Cubs brass will cringe because
The team's losing streak reached five games, giving the Cougars three skids of at least that many games in the second half. Beloit opened up a tight game with three runs in the eighth and ninth. Starter Felix Pena left the game in the third inning with a right hamstring strain.