Cubs' future isn't too far away

Big part of it encamped in Kane County in presence of Almora and Vogelbach

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Inside a playful Kane County Cougars clubhouse Wednesday, the clock near center fielder Albert Almora's locker remained moving forward — not counting down.

The calendar on the wall indeed said 2013 though everybody else around Almora keeps mentioning 2015.

While Cubs fans anxiously await the development of the first draft pick of the Theo Epstein era, the sense of anticipation Almora expressed most on this stifling day surrounded Cougar manager Mark Johnson's 9-year-old son, Will.

Remember that Almora is much closer to Will's age than Alfonso Soriano's.

"It's about to go down!'' Almora warned teammate Dan Vogelbach as Will carried a giant squirt gun to a water fight with the grounds crew.

If Almora feels burdened by being as vital to the Cubs' rebuilding project as the giant video board is to Wrigley Field renovation, he hid it well in a lengthy interview that revealed a grounded 19-year-old from Hialeah, Fla., embracing his importance.

Eschewing special treatment, Almora smirked at a message teammates scribbled on the bulletin board: "Almora, You Suck.'' Comfortably, he kidded with Vogelbach, his roommate and Fox River fishing buddy. Idealistically, he vowed to spend his career as a Cub and marveled at fans committed enough to tattoo the red "C" on their skin.

"Die-hards,'' Almora said, smiling.

Maturely, Almora acknowledged pressing at the plate lately before sending a line drive up the middle in his first at-bat with the smooth swing that made him the sixth overall selection of the 2012 amateur draft.

"I haven't felt pressure,'' said Almora, who's fully recovered from a broken hamate bone and entered Wednesday's game hitting .333 in 44 games. "It's a responsibility and I've always been good with responsibility since I was a little kid. I love this game. To have that mark of being Theo's first draft pick, I take (it) to heart because I don't want to let anybody down. And I won't.''

In terms of interest and emphasis, baseball in southeastern Kane County this summer rivals any played on the North Side of Chicago — and not just for fans who take advantage of $8 tickets and $5 parking.

Cubs officials routinely make the short trip to Fifth Third Bank Ballpark to monitor their first-year Midwest League affiliate and check on prized prospects Almora and Vogelbach, among others savvy Cubs fans already know. That familiarity was obvious opening day when Vogelbach, a 6-foot, 250-pounder with a bat as lively as his personality, received a roar from a crowd curious about the kid worth a $1.6 million signing bonus.

"You feel like you're in Chicago,'' said Johnson, a White Sox catcher from 1998-2002 managing his third year in the Cubs' system. "In the other affiliates, you feel like you're in minor league baseball. Here it's a bigger microscope and that's good. They feel it.''

They savor it.

"It makes you realize you're not just doing it for yourself, you're doing it for everybody in Chicago waiting for the day the Cubs win the World Series,'' Vogelbach said.

Nancy Faust plays the organ on Sundays. About 100 dogs paraded around Wednesday night for a promotion that drew fewer than the average attendance of 5,677. The franchise will welcome its 10 millionth fan Saturday. But nothing creates a buzz quite like when Epstein or general manager Jed Hoyer enter the ballpark.

"They know when Theo or Jed are around,'' Johnson said of his players.

The player everybody knows they come to see most claims it affects him least.

"I don't want to sound cheesy but to me it's a big family so I just play no matter who's here,'' Almora said. "I can't control what people say about when I'll be ready (for the majors) because nobody knows. The Cubs will know. Until then, I'll play hard and wait for my name to be called.''

Everybody recommends patience, but Almora's family history suggests the wait might not last long. The Orioles drafted cousin Manny Machado third overall in 2010 and Tuesday night — three years later — the third baseman played in the All-Star Game.

"Happy to say the best 3B in the league is my cousin,'' @AlbertAlmora tweeted.

To stay on a similarly fast track, Almora meticulously addresses little things he considers weaknesses — bunting, seeing more pitches, "growing as a man,'' he said — while Johnson accentuates his strengths. A Class A manager worries more about psyches than sabermetrics.

"Albert's aptitude separates him,'' Johnson said. "He does emotional things that remind you he's 19 because it's the first time he has struggled. But his baseball IQ is off the charts — but off the charts for 19, not a 24-year-old big leaguer. Tell him something once and he has it.''

Unless it involves directions to Wrigley Field from Geneva. Almora looks intent on charting his own course, quickly.

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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