The Kane County Cougars have established a long track record of success both on and off the field since their debut in 1991. With Elfstrom Stadium being located in the western suburbs of Chicago, less than 45 miles from the homes of both the Cubs and White Sox, the Cougars have been one of the better success stories in the low Class A Midwest League, drawing more than 500,000 paying customers in each of the last five years.
As an Athletics affiliate since 2003, the Cougars have amassed a .551 winning percentage, compiling the league's best regular-season record in both 2003 and 2004, while falling just short of the playoffs in 2005, despite a strong second-half surge. Much of the team’s success has been attributed to the A's style of drafting and player development. Focusing primarily on experienced, polished college players each June, the Cougars' roster was often stocked with players three to four years older than many of the teenage-laden rosters normally associated with a low Class A league.
This advantage was always most evident on the mound. While pitchers like Joe Blanton, Huston Street and Jason Windsor have dominated less-advanced hitters with an advantage of age and significant talent, lesser prospects such as lefthander Stephen Bondurant (14-5, 2.08 in 2004) and Brad Knox (14-5, 2.59), have been able to succeed against much younger hitters primarily by throwing strikes, changing speeds and spinning a decent breaking ball. Some in the league have complained the Cougars have an unfair, but unavoidable advantage due to the age of the team, while others found a silver lining.
"I like playing this team," Beloit manager Kevin Boles said prior to the 2005 season. "It gives us a great opportunity to really test our players and evaluate what we have by seeing them play against more advanced talent."
All of that is about to change in 2006. For the first time since becoming an A's affiliate, the Cougars roster, and in particular their pitching staff, is expected to be stocked with teenagers--many of them taken in the early rounds of the 2005 draft--an unprecedented gambit in the Billy Beane administration.
This isn't to say that the Cougars won’t be talented, as their rotation is expected to feature a trio of righthanders taken in succession in the second and third rounds last June and given bonuses totaling more than $1.6 million. Second-round picks Craig Italiano and Jared Lansford, as well as third-round selection Vince Mazzaro will get their first taste of full-season ball in Kane County. The A's admit to having to adjust their player development philosophies to accommodate the sudden influx of young talent.
"It's almost like uncharted territory," farm director Keith Lieppman said. "We're going into an arena we haven't been in a long, long time."
Despite being constantly grouped together, the three enter the seasons as very different talents, each needing to focus on different aspects of the game in order to move through a system that has few high-ceiling arms. Italiano, in the long line of power-throwing righthanders from Texas, had the best velocity of any high school pitcher in the draft, touching 98 mph often, but his maximum-effort delivery and a bout with shoulder tendinitis kept him out of the first round and had many projecting him as a reliever.
Lansford, the son of former A's infielder Carney, has less pure stuff but is not surprisingly the most polished of the three, already commanding three solid pitches (a low-90s fastball, biting curve and solid changeup) well. Mazzaro is in many ways a combination of the two--he has power stuff and good mechanics, but is raw and has yet to pitch in a pro game. Coming from New Jersey, not exactly a baseball hotbed, he's had few opportunities to face top-flight competition as an amateur.
The trio has spent their brief pro careers together, with Lansford and Italiano both impressing last year in the Rookie-level Arizona League. Mazzaro, who signed too late to make his pro debut, actually outpitched the pair in an eye-opening instructional league performance.
"We're confident as an organization that all three are ready for full-season ball and have the stuff to succeed at Kane County," Lieppman said.
The trio's development begins in earnest in the spring, as the pitchers will sit down with the coaching stuff in a goal-setting meeting that revolves around the process rather than results. "Performance-wise, it's almost a grace period for them," added Lieppman. "It's all about health and working on an approach."
Caution is priority number one for the organization right now, as the A's expect to keep all three in the 120-innings range for the season. Throwing on strict pitch counts throughout the year, the A's will limit the three to 75 pitches per outing, with that number being slowly stretched out to a maximum of 90-100 by midseason.
With the possibility of another pair of high school righthanders--fifth-round pick Scott Deal and seventh-round pick Kevin Bunch--joining the staff, Lieppman has not ruled out reverting to the eight-man tandem-starter setup the organization has used at times in the past at this level.
"It's a very conservative way to monitor your staff," Lieppman said, "and not something we're ruling out at this time. It has its dangers. If you have a situation where the starter can’t get out of the first couple of innings twice in a week, it can completely throw off your understaffed bullpen and your rotation, and the team is forced to readjust the workload and pitchers can get off a set schedule."
After keeping the young arms healthy, the most important aspect of developing young talent is teaching them how to pitch in a professional environment. For the three, who combined to strike out 262 batters over 171 innings in their senior year of high school, this means coping with the fact that they are not going to dominate every time out, and adjusting to an organizational philosophy that preaches efficiency.
"There are a lot of firsts that these guys have to deal with, and the big one is failure," Lieppman said. "Jared gave up a home run in an instructional league game, and we think it was the first home run anybody's ever hit off him in his life, and it got to him.
"These guys are going to get hit for the first time in their lives, so we have to stay in touch with them mentally."
With first-year manager Aaron Niekula challenged with putting together a young team for the first time in the club's history as an Oakland affiliate, minor league pitching coordinator Ron Romanick is also expected to spend the majority of his time with the Cougars to monitor the club's investment. But the A's remain confident the Cougars can win and develop simultaneously.
"We've been used to winning up there, and so is the Kane County management," Lieppman said. "So while the construction of the roster might be a little different, we think that tradition will continue."
• Indians first baseman Michael Aubrey is expected to be ready to resume full baseball activities at big league camp in Winter Haven, Fla. Aubrey, who has played just 98 games as a pro since he signed as a first-round pick out of Tulane in 2003 due to hamstring and back problems, appeared in just 28 games at Double-A Akron last season. "He's had monthly checkups in Cleveland all offseason and he's ready to go," farm director John Farrell said. "He's pain-free--we're just waiting to see how he responds to the full activity." Aubrey is expected to return to Double-A this season.
• The Dodgers decided to use their impressive minor league depth to improve their big league club, trading righthander Edwin Jackson and lefthander Chuck Tiffany to the Devil Rays for relievers Danys Baez and Lance Carter. BA ranked Jackson as the minors' top pitcher going into the 2004 season, but since then he has posted a 5.88 ERA in 208 innings in the minor leagues, plus a 6.75 ERA in 53 innings in Los Angeles. Jackson's fastball velocity wasn’t a problem in 2005--he averaged 94 mph and routinely touched 96 during his stint with Double-A Jacksonville, according to Rick Honeycutt, who was the Dodgers' minor league pitching instructor last season. Devil Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said the Rays had evaluated Jackson thoroughly before the trade both in terms of his stuff and work ethic and concluded he was worth the risk. "He might have been rushed a bit--he was pitching in the big leagues on his 20th birthday--and we had good reports about him," Friedman said. "If he had gone to college, he would have been just been drafted, so we have to keep in mind how young he is."
Contributing: Chris Kline.