CHICAGO – The way Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein tells it, the idea to move their Single A affiliate out of Peoria struck them only days ago.
However, the Cubs had been mulling a change for weeks, eager to bring one of their minor league teams closer to home. The timing of their decision raised some questions since big league teams weren’t allowed to negotiate with other affiliates until Sunday. The Cubs reportedly reached out to Kane County last month to inquire about relocating their Single A affiliate to Geneva.
In the end, everything worked out just as the Cubs hoped. On Wednesday, the Cubs agreed on a two-year player development contract with the Kane County Cougars to be their single A affiliate.
“I hope it can be a win-win,” Epstein said. “I want to thank Peoria for everything they did for us. That was a great relationship, too. I saw they landed the Cardinals so that works out well for everybody.”
More convenient travel – Wrigley Field is located 174 miles from Peoria compared to 47 miles from Geneva – was the greatest motivator in the Cubs’break up with the Chiefs, even though that meant ending a relationship that endured two stints spanning 18 years. Following the blueprint Epstein created in Boston, it’s all about location.
“I’m a big fan of having as many affiliates as possible close by the home city,” Epstein said. “It just creates a lot of efficiencies with rehabs and allows front office and staff to see the team play a little bit more often. Also gives our players a feel for the market before there’s too much pressure on them. They get an understanding of how important baseball is and get to know the fans a little bit.”
In the grand scheme of things, traveling a couple of hours down to central Illinois isn’t a big deal. But instead of worrying about the logistics of sending a player on a rehab assignment three hours away, the Cubs’ brass can both watch his progress in person while keeping their focus on the big league team.
“It’s nice to have a place  miles away to be able to send guys on rehabs,” manager Dale Sveum said. “You don’t have to worry about flights and all that stuff. It’s a great city and it’s a great facility.”
With an emphasis on rebuilding, player development is the No. 1 priority. The in-season promotions of Anthony Rizzo, Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters has shifted the focus to 2012 first-round pick Albert Almora and Cuban slugger Jorge Soler. Almora finished the season in Boise, hitting .292 in 15 games, while Soler posted a .338 average in 20 games with the Chiefs. Is there a chance Soler, 20, starts the 2013 season at Kane County? “It’s too early to tell,” Epstein said. “Yeah it’s a possibility, absolutely.”
Cubs and Cougars fans alike could be in for a treat next year. Soler and Almora will play in front of the pro-Cubs crowd in Geneva at some point, a pit stop in their road to the majors. Two prospects who potentially will join the youngsters on the Cougars are home run-hitting first baseman Daniel Vogelbach and right-handed pitcher Pierce Johnson. And if Cubs fans get sick of watching mediocre baseball at Wrigley Field next season, which is highly probable, a trip to Kane County can provide some hope for the future.
Epstein said any discussions about where the Cubs’ top minor leaguers will play to open the 2013 season won’t happen until spring training.
“It’s primarily what the right step is for each player’s development and then obviously sort of at the end of the roster you fill in other players to balance out the rosters as best you can,” Epstein said. “We had a pretty good group in Boise and the natural next step for a lot of those players would be the Midwest League.”
Attendance has steadily declined the past 10 years at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva, which seats 7,400 not including lawn seating. The Cougars averaged 5,587 fans per game in 2012, their second as the affiliate for the Kansas City Royals, and they averaged the smallest attendance since 1993 (5,451 fans). Still, the Cougars ranked third in attendance in the 16-team Midwest League this season.
Though Kane County may struggle to draw in local fans who swear allegiance to the White Sox, it’s a great opportunity for the Cubs to expand their fan base in the western suburbs and tap into a new audience with younger baseball fans.
“Overall, I thought the attendance was pretty good,” Curtis Haug, the Cougars’ general manager, said. “We got by without any rainouts and also had some heat issues, but I think things definitely will be on the increase going forward.”
• Kevin Druley contributed to this report