When the Cougars take the field Thursday at Quad Cities to start the 2014 Midwest League season, they will be different from last year’s team in terms of both style and substance.
While the 2013 edition of the Cougars boasted star power in big-name Cubs prospects like Dan Vogelbach, Albert Almora, Rock Shoulders and Pierce Johnson and counted on the long ball to generate offense, this team is a bit leaner, with more under-the-radar prospects — at least to casual fan — and a focus on pitching, defense and speed.
Mark Johnson, in his second year as the Cougars’ manager, calls this type of baseball a little “more fun” to manage and looks to keep pretty busy in the third base coaching box this summer.
“We’ll put more guys in motion and be a little more active on the bases,” Johnson said. “These guys will move the ball around, lots of hit-and-run and bunting and guys will be in motion. We will have to focus on putting the bat on the ball and putting it in play.”
At the top of the order will be outfielder Jake Hannemann, the Cubs’ third-round pick from a year ago. A native of Utah who played his college ball at Brigham Young, Hannemann will pretty much have the green light to make things happen with his speed
“Something I want to bring more into play is bunting and stealing,” Hannemann said. “I have the speed (to do both) but I’ve never perfected them. I know it’s more of an art now (in professional baseball) and the coaches have really helped me out, so I’m going to give it a try.”
Hannemann hit .290 in a 14-game stint at short-season Boise last year, while fellow outfielder Shawon Dunston Jr., son of the former Cubs shortstop, also hit .290 and stole a team-high 12 bases.
Outfielder Yasiel Balaguert from Cuba will provide some pop in the lineup, as will infielder Jacob Rogers, with the two combining for 16 homers and 95 RBI for Boise.
Right-hander Paul Blackburn will get Thursday’s start on Opening Day. A first-round supplemental pick of the Cubs in 2012, Blackburn, along with righty Tyler Skulina, will be counted on to provide some top-of-the-rotation strength.
Jen-Ho Tseng, a 19-year-old right-hander from Taiwan, will also be part of the rotation and is an intriguing prospect.
“I’m going to try not to let the jitters get to me, though I know I’ll have a couple of them the first few innings,” Blackburn said.
“I feel like it’s an honor, especially with the pitching staff we have here.”
After four games in Iowa, the Cougars will return for the home opener against Ft. Wayne at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.