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Kane County Cougars notes: Johnson relishes chance to help build Cubs' mold

Published: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 8:58 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 9:07 p.m. CDT

GENEVA – Four of the Cubs’ top 30 prospects, according to Baseball America, are members of the 2014 Kane County Cougars, who are set to open the Midwest League season at Quad Cities at 6:30 p.m. today.

Manager Mark Johnson knows extra fan attention will be fixed on right-hander Paul Blackburn (12th-rated), center fielder Jake Hannemann (17th), righty Tyler Skulina (19th) and infielder Daniel Lockhart (30th). Cultivating those careers alongside the others excites him each day considering the Cubs’ renewed emphasis on player development.

“They’re doing everything they possibly can. For us, we can’t ask for anything more than that,” Johnson said.

“Their commitment is to win a championship, and they’re putting it all in our hands to teach them and get them there and to mold them to be professionals and to play the game the right way and to build them all the way up. It’s nice to know and it’s comfortable to know that they’re putting the ball in our court to mold these young men into professionals.”

Cubs president Theo Epstein stressed building the organization’s farm system as the lifeblood of its ongoing rebuilding plan. At Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, one the most visible signs to that end is the abundance of video equipment.

“They’re constantly watching the players, and Theo can sit and watch the guys from his office at Wrigley [Field],” Cougars general manager Curtis Haug said. “And that’s a big thing, obviously, that they’re really keeping track of all their affiliation throughout the country and keeping track of their younger players. Because that’s so vital to them right now.”

The running men: Blackburn, a supplemental first-round pick in 2012, will oppose Quad Cities righty Andrew Thurman tonight. Thurman was a second-round pick of the parent Houston Astros last season. Both pitchers played for Short-A affiliates in 2013.

While Blackburn hopes he won’t have to test his outfielders too often, he’s confident in the athletic trio behind him: Trey Martin (left field) Hannemann (center) and Yasiel Balaguert (right).

“No doubt everyone in the outfield has got tremendous range,” Blackburn said. “They have good arms, they have great baseball IQs. They know how to get to balls, the best routes to take. It’s definitely good having that in the outfield.”

Martin began 2013 in Kane County before undergoing season-ending left shoulder season after just 11 games.

“Trey’s good. Trey’s good to go,” Johnson said. “He’s strong and healthy and really positive and excited about the season.”

Meat the Cougars: The chicken tender basket proved a popular pregame snack for a handful of Cougars last season, most often starting pitchers who had worked the day before.

Players planning to retreat to the Fifth Third Bank Ballpark concession stand in 2014 might want to make sure they’re still wearing warm-ups. Among the new fare is the Colossus burger, an all-beef Angus patty topped with homemade barbecue pulled pork and cole slaw and served on a pretzel roll.

Other debut items include the turkey burger, steak sausage and the Ozzie dog – a half-pound hot dog named for mascot Ozzie T. Cougar.

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