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Cougars manager Johnson recoups for '14 by laying low in offseason

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014 7:48 a.m. CDT

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Cougars manager Mark Johnson hollered at his dog to remain on the sidewalk while recently speaking by phone from his Georgia home.

It would have been a stretch to tie the command to baseball – Stay in position? Don't leave too early? – which suited Johnson just fine.

"I didn't do anything baseball-related this offseason. It was great," Johnson said. "It was the first time in 20 years. I needed it."

The outdoorsy Johnson figures he'd have been just as laid-back even if the Cougars hadn't slumped to a 55-80 record in 2013, the worst in franchise history. Presiding over top prospects such as Albert Almora, Pierce Johnson and Dan Vogelbach in the Cougars' first season as a Class-A Cubs affiliate remained an energizing endeavor throughout.

Equally stirring was the offseason news that Rick Renteria, who managed the Cougars in 1999 when the club was aligned with the Florida Marlins, will manage the Cubs beginning in 2014.

"That's always a motivation," Johnson said. "You've just got to put your time in, just like you do when you're a player and any other job. Do your work and keep your head down and just try to get the kids as good as you can and good things usually come about."

While spring training and Cubs brass will be the ultimate deciding factors, it's likely Cougars fans will see their share of Shawon Dunston Jr. – an 11th-round draft pick in 2011 – in center field in 2014. Dunston's father and namesake was a stalwart in the Cubs' infield for much of the 1980s and 1990s.

Dunston Jr. batted .290 in 49 games as the primary leadoff hitter for Short-A Boise last season.

One Boise export that's known to be descending on Fifth Third Bank Ballpark is new pitching coach David Rosario, who served in that capacity with the Hawks from 2011 to 2013. Johnson managed Boise during the first two seasons of Rosario's tenure.

"Rosie's super passionate. He really enjoys teaching and being around the kids," Johnson said. "He's a super hard worker and just a true professional when it comes to player development."

Cubs officials have slapped similar praise on Johnson, and he'll be eager to channel that vigor again before long. Until minor leaguers report to Cubs spring training around March 1, however, Johnson is happy to lay low.

The Renteria hiring was about the only hot stove item he followed.

"I think about [baseball] every day," Johnson said, "but as far as keeping up with baseball and keeping up with the news and everything, I took a break from all that and tried to recoup. After a full season like that, you need that break."

Moving on: Rosario replaces Ron Villone, who was promoted to Advanced-A Daytona in what Johnson called a "well-deserved" move.

Trainer Shane Nelson was promoted to Double-A Tennessee, as Jonathan Fiero joins the Cougars from Boise.

"Trainers have got a lot of responsibility, and there's lots of communication," Johnson said. "We have to be on the same page daily."

Tom Beyers will return as Cougars hitting coach.

Brr-st pitch: While the snow and frigid temperatures might make it hard to believe, opening day of the Cougars' 24th season in Geneva is a little more than three months away.

The Cougars will begin the season at Quad Cities at 7 p.m. April 3 before facing Fort Wayne in the home opener at 6:30 p.m. April 8.

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