The Kane County Cougars had an excellent season that ended with a Midwest League Championship. While the players won the games (91-49 regular season record, 7-0 in post-season), Mark Johnson called the shots and was named Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year.
The former big league catcher dealt with roster turnover (51 different players) and his team ended up with the most victories in minor league baseball.
Mark Johnson guided a very good, young pitching staff that dominated the Midwest League. And the starting rotation that featured Jen-Ho Tseng, Duane Underwood, Paul Blackburn and Daury Torrez was the only constant for the Cougars throughout the 2014 season.
Theo Epstein said, “He created an unbelievable atmosphere where the players learned to care about the team ahead of themselves. They really supported each other. They got better. They had a knack for coming back in games, not giving up, learning how to win. He kept them all focused, really kept a winning atmosphere around the team even though it wasn’t the same group of guys. He’s doing a great job, and I’m sure he’ll keep growing over the years. We’re really glad to have him.”
Mark Johnson managed the Boise Hawks for two seasons prior to taking over the Cubs’ Low-A affiliate in Kane County in 2013. Johnson will move up a level in the system for the 2015 season, according to Gordon Wittenmyer, and manage the High-A Myrtle Beach team with a roster that should include most of the players he just led to a championship.
Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year (Kris Bryant), Manager of the Year (Mark Johnson) and Executive of the Year (Sam Bernabe) for 2014 all reside in the Cubs organization.
Duane Underwood was very good last year and is arguably the best pitching prospect in the system that very few talk about. Underwood pitched a majority of last season at the ripe old age of 19. He turned 20 in late July. Underwood has a big arm and started figuring things out last year.
The most noticeable difference was his commitment to the game. Underwood listened to the front office “after a couple of stern talks,” worked with a nutritionist and dropped almost 30 pounds while trying to shed the nickname given to him by his teammates, “Chunky Butter.”
Mark Johnson saw a change in Underwood as he showed steady improvement throughout the year. Johnson said, “He’s still has a long way to go but he made some huge strides this year with the way he handled himself on the field and off the field with his nutrition and the way he handled himself, his composure on the mound.”
Duane Underwood was 6-4 in 22 games, 21 starts, for Low-A Kane County last season with a 2.50 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP.
And with the Ninth Pick in the 2015 Draft …
Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo posted a very early mock draft last week for the first 10 picks in next June’s draft. The Cubs currently have the ninth pick in the First-Year Player Draft.
Jim Callis sees the Cubs taking LHP Kolby Allard out of San Clemente High School in California. Allard is currently ranked as the best high school arm in the draft. Allard repeats his loose, easy delivery, is athletic and commands his fastball well to both sides of the plate. Allard’s fastball sits in the 92-94 mph range. Reports suggested his breaking ball is already good enough to get big league hitters out.
Jonathan Mayo said he reached with his prediction but he thinks the Cubs will select LHP Kyle Cody from Kentucky. Cody is 6-foot-7, 245 pounds and he could move up the draft boards with a successful junior season. Cody can touch 97 mph with his fastball, has a good feel for a change up and features a slider in the 78-82 mph range.
Minor News and Notes
The Cubs have not announced the minor league managers or coaching staffs, but according to Gordon Wittenmyer, Dave Keller has been named the Cubs Latin America Field Coordinator. Keller was the D-Cubs manager the last two seasons. Mark Johnson is expected to be named High-A Myrtle Beach’s skipper.
MLB and MiLB are talking about further testing the pitch clock that received a trail run in the Arizona Fall League in Triple-A and Double-A games next season.