Earlier this month, the Peoria Chiefs took the Kane County Cougars out of playoff contention. On Wednesday, the Cougars took their team.
The Cougars signed a two-year deal with the Chicago Cubs Wednesday to move the major league team's Class A affiliate to Geneva. The move ends a seven-year run for the Cubs affiliate in Peoria and a two-year relationship between the Cougars and the Kansas City Royals. Peoria will be reuniting with the St. Louis Cardinals.
For fans following the Cubs' rebuilding effort, the change marks a chance to see some of the team's big league prospects at a more affordable price than a game at Wrigley Field, and a shorter trek than the six-hour round trip to central Illinois. While the process of deciding who plays where is determined in spring training depending on each player's development plan, the expectation is many of the players from the Cubs' Class A team in Boise will move to Geneva next year. The Boise affiliate just missed winning its league championship this season. Top prospects on the team are Albert Almora and Dan Vogelbach. The most successful Cub to come through the Boise affiliate in recent years is pitcher Jeff Samardzija.
Cubs officials praised the move as giving both fans and team officials more direct access to the minor league talent.
"I'm a big fan of having as many affiliates as possible close by the home city," Cubs President Theo Epstein said Wednesday night before the Cubs' game at Wrigley Field. "It creates a lot of efficiencies with rehabs (minor league rehab assignments for players).
"It allows the front office to see the team play a little bit more often. It also gives our players a feel for the market before there's too much pressure on them to get an understanding of how important baseball is, to get to know the fans a little bit," Epstein said.
"Obviously, it's a good for the affiliate with the link to the hometown team. Hopefully it can be a win-win."
The transition may also prove to be a revenue generator for the organization. Attendance at Cougars games has been roughly twice that of the attendance at Peoria Chiefs games since 2005, despite almost identical stadium capacity.
"With Kane County, it is exciting to know we now have a Cubs affiliate right in our backyard," Jason McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development, said in a written statement.
Cougars officials said the move is a chance to build on an already proven track record of fan attendance and enthusiasm for the ballpark. Besides Cougars games, the ballpark recently hosted a well-attended Wilco concert, an all-star game and created enough commercial appeal to ink a stadium naming rights contract with Fifth Third Bank.
"It's been a big year for us," Cougars General Manager Curtis Haug said Wednesday afternoon. "There's a big fan base that will come from Chicago. And there's a lot of emphasis on the minor league system and the kids coming up for the Cubs organization right now. So we're pretty excited over here."
Local political figures shared in that excitement Wednesday, seeing the potential for a flood of Cubs fans to be a big boost to the Kane County economy. Kane County and the Kane County Forest Preserve District own the 700-acre campus the Cougars share in Geneva. Officials are in the process of finalizing a massive redevelopment vision for the entire site. The plan would add a cross country track, a concert venue and a hotel/convention center (among other amenities) to create a mega-recreational destination for the entire area.
"The hotels, the restaurants, it's good news for everyone," said Forest Preserve District President John Hoscheit. "A lot of the revenue the county and its businesses derive from that location is difficult to track. Ticket sales for a lot of the minor league teams have gone down some because of the economy. But the Cubs are in rebuilding mode. When the Florida Marlins were here, they were in a similar mode and a lot their big name players came through here. So I'm sure this move is only going to help increase their attendance."
Both Haug and Hoscheit said they hope Metra takes note of the move and considers adding either a new stop near the ballpark or at least agrees to provide shuttle service from the current stop in Geneva.
Cubs officials said an agreement in principle was reached Tuesday night and the player development contract was signed early Wednesday morning.
"I want to thank Peoria for everything they did for us," Epstein said. "It was a great relationship, too. I saw they landed the Cardinals, so that works out well for everybody."
The Cougars have made 13 postseason appearances in their 22-season history that began in 1991 as an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. The Cougars played games at Wrigley Field in 2008 and 2010 as part of the Cubs' "Road to Wrigley" series. Overall, 120 future major leaguers have played in Geneva. The Cougars won the Midwest League championship in 2001.
Opening day for the Cougars as a Cubs affiliate is April 4, 2013.
• Daily Herald staff writer Bruce Miles contributed to this story.