Cubs hitting prospects connecting with Cougars
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Rock Shoulders, the young man with the perfect baseball name, has hit the cover off the ball for the Kane County Cougars this season, collecting 36 RBI and 12 homers in 53 games for the Class A club.
Even with a solid hitting line of .264/.374/.503 in 53 games, though, Shoulders doesn't command the sole spotlight on the Cougars roster.
He shares it with first baseman/designated hitter Dan Vogelbach (37 RBI, 8 HRs), and newcomer Albert Almora, the highly touted 2012 first-round draft pick (sixth overall) of the Cubs.
Last week before the start of a four-game series against Cedar Rapids, Shoulders walked into the Cougars' locker room with an undersized Super Mario Bros. backpack draped over his shoulder, and Almora entered with his vibrant lime green Dr. Dre Beats headphones around his neck.
Chomping on burritos with their teammates before the game, they enjoyed joking around with each other and introducing themselves to the gathered media.
Once they stepped onto the field, however, their thoughts shifted to a more serious tone and expectation: to play well and win.
Shoulders leads the Midwest League with 12 home runs (through Tuesday) and was named the Cubs' Minor League Player of the Month in April. He plays outfield and splits time at first with Vogelbach, another top prospect who is hitting .276/.339/.438 for the Cougars.
"It's always nice having a guy like him (Vogelbach) in front of me in the lineup," Shoulders said. "I can see how they pitch him and I can work off of that."
To the experts at MLB.com, Vogelbach draws comparisons to former Midwest League star Prince Fielder. Vogelbach is listed as 6-feet, 250 pounds, while Shoulders comes in at a solid 6-2, 225.
Both were the primary focal point of the Cougars' offense until May 22, when the team called up Almora, forming a talented hitting trio for the club.
In Almora's first bid, he earned Midwest League Player of the Week honors by batting .538 with 5 doubles, 6 runs, 4 RBI and 4 multihit games.
Cubs fans were rejoicing at the blazing hot start until Almora went down with what appeared to be a knee or hamstring injury after twisting around for a flyball in center field.
As Cubs Nation collectively gasped, blogs and social-media sites exploded over the fear they would lose Almora to an injury just a month after he returned from breaking his hamate bone in his left hand during spring training.
No team representative would comment on the severity of Almora's injury, leaving Cubs faithful to speculate on the outcome. The only news was a tweet after the game from Almora's official Twitter account: "No worries! Ill be back in a day or 2! Good win boys!!! #slaphands."
After a few days of worry and rumors, Almora's name finally returned to the lineup card against the Cedar Rapids last Friday.
"I was just cramping up; the team wanted me to take it easy, so I was just drinking a lot of fluids this last series so I would be back and ready to go at 100 percent," Almora said before that game. "I know when I'm hurt or not, and that's something where they just wanted to make sure I was going to be all right.
"I'm fine, there's nothing wrong, and I'm not scared or anything (of re-injury), so I'm just going to go out there and play normal."
With Almora hitting second (.455/.510/.591 through 11 games), the Cougars bat Vogelbach third and Shoulders fifth, creating a formidable lineup.
The raw power and ability to hit for average are the two biggest reasons why people believe Vogelbach and Shoulders have a future in the majors. Although they split time at the same position, there's no rivalry between them.
"It would be awesome for me and (Vogelbach) to hit back-to-back, or have one person in between us, in the majors for the Cubs," Shoulders said. "Going to the big leagues with the Cubs, you could be on that team that wins that big World Series everyone's been waiting for — it would be unreal."
It's also no mystery why the Cubs are so high on Almora's abilities. Those who watch him play every day believe he plays center field at a high level, shows a lot of speed, hits for contact, and has some pop in his swing that could develop into power once he matures physically.
Yes, Almora's body still needs to mature — he just turned 19 in April. At such a young age, his potential is cathedral-ceiling high. He is rated as the "best hitter for average" and the "best defensive outfield" in the Cubs' system by Baseball America.
While Almora's short-term goal is to help the Cougars win, he knows he has to stay healthy to develop his skills and reach his long-term goal of playing for the Cubs.
In the meantime, he likes knowing that his teammates share the same dream of some day leading the Cubs to the World Series.
"That's very, very true," Almora said. "That's something we all look forward to."
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