For Cougars, it's about much more than wins and losses
- Photos (1)
It hasn't been the best of seasons for the Kane County Cougars, but Cubs prospect Albert Almora and his teammates understand it's more about player development than wins and losses.
Photo courtesy of Kane County Cougars
The Kane County Cougars are wrapping up their first year as an affiliate of the Cubs, and by all accounts, the relationship has been a good one.
The Cubs have a farm club close to home, and the Cougars are getting some of the most talked-about players in the Cubs' minor-league system, such as Albert Almora, Dan Vogelbach and Gioskar Amaya.
On the field, the Cougars are walking that fine line between wanting to win games and developing players for future success.
The won-loss record isn't going to get the Cougars to the Midwest League playoffs. They were 30-36 in the first half of the season, and they entered Saturday 17-29 in the second half.
Cubs president Theo Epstein said recently he is looking at more than the record on the field.
"The players themselves are keyed in to a few things," Epstein said. "The organizational philosophy and what's important to us and what we're trying to teach: their own development because they have their individual player plans. They know exactly what their strengths are. They buy into what they have to work on.
"We try to stress winning as an important part of development. It's not always going to happen. Development comes first.
"I'd rather have a team of full of players that are the youngest at their level that happens to be losing than a team of older players that's dominating at that level who shouldn't be there because they're too old.
"We teach winning. We teach being in a winning culture down there. We want them to develop themselves into winning players. But, ultimately, development comes first at the minor-league level."
Hours before any Cougars game, manager Mark Johnson and his staff — hitting coach Tom Beyers and pitching coach Ron Villone — are on the field going with the players, leading drills or going over specific situations.
Johnson, a former major-league catcher who spent time with the White Sox, managed the Cubs' short-season Class A team at Boise in 2011 and 2012. He knows full well that losing games can get to any player, but his job is to keep focused on the bigger picture.
"We go about our business every day just to strive to get better in each and every thing that we do," Johnson said. "The (lack of) winning is definitely tough, and sometimes it brings the morale down.
"It's tough for a team to get going and get rolling when you are struggling to win ballgames. You put the focus on working hard and grinding it out daily on the work schedule.
"You can't quit. You've got to keep coaching. You've got to keep teaching every single day. Sometimes having seasons like this are good things.
"They understand that side of it now, and they are going to do different things in future seasons and even in the next month to turn things around instead of never knowing what could happen. I played on teams like this coming up, and it's not easy."
Almora was the Cubs' first-round draft choice in 2012. Vogelbach was taken in the second round in 2011. Many young players who were high draft picks enjoyed success at the amateur level.
Coping with losing is just one adjustment they have to make to pro ball.
"For some of these guys, it's the first time they've failed and faced adversity and putting a little bit of losing on top of it," Johnson said. "It's our job to show them how to be professional and how to go about their business no matter whether they're in an 0-for-20 slump or we lost six or seven in a row.
"It's our job to stay positive and stay even-keeled and be consistent with our work routines and things like that, because that's what they need. Over time, they'll look back on this and be like, 'Oh, man remember that season? This is what we did, or this can't happen, and then we did this right.'
"That's what it's all about. It's development, but you also want to win. Keep plugging. Keep grinding. I keep telling these guys to keep grinding."
The players seem to understand. Both Vogelbach and Almora were upbeat before one game in late July.
"With me, winning's always going to come first," said Vogelbach, who entered Saturday with 17 home runs. "Even if I had a good day, the first thing that's going to cross my mind is, 'Did we win or lose?'
"No matter how many we win or how many we lose, that's never going to change. I try to stay in a routine. I talk to MJ a lot. I try to get in a pregame routine that I can stay with and stick with as I move up through the minors.
"I feel awesome. I'm really excited about everything that's going on. I feel really good, even though we're late into the season. I feel fresh. I feel ready to go.
"I'm really pleased with how things are going right now, and I'm just trying to get better each and every day, get into a routine and stay in that routine."
Almora, 19, was drafted out of Mater Academy Charter High School in Hialeah Gardens, Fla. He played last summer at Mesa (Ariz.) and Boise after signing with the Cubs.
"We know we're not going to win every game," he said. "It's part of baseball, but just go out there every day and give it your all, to say you left it all out on the field and did what you could.
"Development wise, you just try to get better every day, and that's part of it, just playing hard and giving it all.
"It's a grind; it's a grind. It's a long season. Take care of your body. It's a roller coaster. It goes up and down, but just try to stay as normal as possible."
For fans, a night out at a Cougars game is a mix of entertainment, wanting to see the home team win and watching players develop. Cubs fans have an added stake for the first time because of the new affiliation. Through Friday's game, the Cougars had drawn 308,766 this season, for an average of 5,826.
"I have been a season-ticket holder at Kane County for 22 seasons now, and for me the wins have been secondary to seeing the future major-league stars play ball," wrote Dan McQuade of Hoffman Estates. "Don't get me wrong, winning baseball is always a lot more entertaining than losing, but even in down years like this one I have always been able to derive a lot of enjoyment from watching the prospects from throughout the Midwest League play ball.
"I am probably the exception rather than the rule among those that regularly attend Cougars games, but for me being eyewitness to the development of young A-ball talents into productive major-leaguers far outweighs any concern I might have for the Cougars' won-lost record."
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