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Cougars manager eyes improvement in Year 2

Published: Friday, March 28, 2014 9:53 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, March 28, 2014 9:58 p.m. CDT

Kane County Cougars manager Mark Johnson leaned on his experience as a former White Sox catcher in helping last season’s club adjust to playing in one of the Midwest League’s more metropolitan markets.

He enters 2014 with a pulse on the Fox Valley, too, which can only bode well as the team prepares to arrive Monday ahead of Thursday’s season opener at Quad Cities.

“Obviously, I’m a lot more comfortable going back to a town and a city and a club and an affiliate that I know what to expect and I understand what we need to do,” Johnson said. “As far as the team, we’re going to do what we do every year, and we’re going to get better at what we do every year.”

Johnson led the Cougars to a franchise-worst 55-80 record in 2013, his first year at one of the parent Cubs’ full-season affiliates.

Returning to the kind of success he enjoyed in two previous seasons at Short-A Boise – including a Northwest League Championship Series berth in 2012 – certainly is on Johnson’s agenda. The path, he knows, will be made easier the sooner players get acclimated to the rigors of a full pro season.

As the Cubs prepare to release affiliate rosters soon, Johnson acknowledged “there will be a few returners” from 2013, “but not many.” Hitting coach Tom Beyers is back, flanked by new colleagues in pitching coach David Rosario and trainer Jonathan Fiero.

“Everything was great, you know, in Kane,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of unknowns going into last year, stepping in there. This year there’s not any, so it’s definitely comforting.”

Good luck, Gretzky: Last week’s trade of outfield prospect Trevor Gretzky to the Angels for minor league first baseman Matt Scioscia surprised Johnson. Gretzky, the son of NHL legend Wayne, was likely to begin the season with the Class-A Cougars after his August 2013 promotion from Boise.

“I didn’t really expect it, but you know, the way our outfield situation is, and maybe it gives Trevor an opportunity over there,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a lot of oufielders over here and not a lot of room to move.

“I hate to see him go.”

Gretzky, a lanky 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, had added about 20 pounds of offseason muscle.

Pro sports legacies still should be a story in these parts, as Shawon Dunston Jr. has likely been targeted for Kane County, according to club brass. Scioscia, the son of Angels manager Mike, worked with Advanced-A and Double-A groups in the late stages of spring training but has not played above Class-A.

Et cetera: Johnson called the Cubs’ new $84 million spring training complex in Mesa, Ariz., “off the charts nice.”

The 38-year-old saw much of the weight and workout equipment up close as long as he beat the rush.

“That’s kind of our time, about 4:40 to 5 in the morning is kind of when we do our thing,” Johnson said. “So our days are pretty long.”

• Players realize the impending temperature drop comes with the territory of playing in the Midwest League. Temperatures in Arizona hovered around 80 to 85 in Mesa, the most consistent spring training in Johnson’s time with the Cubs.

“Guys are really eager to get going no matter what the weather is in Geneva,” Johnson said.

• The Cougars’ April 8 home opener against Fort Wayne marks their first of 13 home games in the month. There are 16 home games in May, 13 in June, 13 in July, 14 in August and one in September – the regular-season finale on Labor Day.

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