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Midwest League: Cougars teaming up with Cubs?

Fans cheer Midwest League All-Star Game Fifth Third Bank Ballpark June 19. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

Fans cheer at the Midwest League All-Star Game at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark on June 19. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 23, 2012 6:21AM

The Cubs may be on the verge of moving some of their highest-profile Class A prospects to Kane County as soon as next season.

Sources say the Cubs are in the process of working out a player development agreement with the Kane County Cougars in an effort to move their Midwest League affiliate from Peoria — putting those Class A players 120 miles closer to Chicago.

Several high-profile players acquired in team president Theo Epstein’s first draft this year could be part of next year’s Kane County roster, including No. 6 overall pick Albert Almora.

The change would mean ending a relationship with the Peoria Chiefs that goes back nearly 30 years between a 10-year affiliation in the 1980s and early ‘90s and the current eight-year affiliation.

In Kane County, officials were mum: the Kane County Cougars issued a statement saying only that the organization enjoys its current working relationship with the Kansas City Royals but that Major League rules prohibit commenting on future arrangements with big league teams.

The Kane County Forest Preserve District, which owns Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Geneva where the Cougars play, also declined comment.

Both the Peoria Chiefs and Cougars have PDCs — player development contracts — that expire at the end of this season.

“It definitely caught us off guard,” Chiefs president Rocky Vonachen told the Peoria Journal Star. “It’s the first we’ve heard anything like that.”

This is the Cougars’ last season on a two-year contract with the Kansas City Royals, and rumors have been circulating among fans this year that the team would become a Cubs’ affiliate.

David Malamut of Lisle has been a Cougars fan since the team’s inception in 1991; he has attended about a dozen games this year. He said the switch could provide, at least short-term, a boost in attendance.

The author of “Kane County Baseball” (Arcadia Publishing), he noted attendance has been falling in recent years. Attendance peaked at 523,222 in 2001; last year’s attendance was 410, 262 with an average of about 6,000 per game.

But, he added, most fans don’t know who the team is affiliated with now. “They’re just there for the game,” he said. “If they go and it’s a good experience, they’ll be back. If not, they won’t come back.”

However, Malamut said, there is a danger it could backfire.

“Half the city are Sox fans,” he said, suggesting those people may not want to root for their rivals — even if the players are just Cubs in waiting.

Marc Ganis, president of the Chicago-based sports consulting firm Sportscorp Limited, said the Cubs’ new arrangement sounds like a smart idea for both the Kane County team owners and the big league club — and a boost for Cubs fans.

For the Kane County organization, there will likely be increased attention from fans because they can watch the “Cubs of the future,” said Ganis.

The big league team can keep a closer eye on its prospects, he added, and use some of its personnel, such as team physicians, to care for the younger players. Additionally, said Ganis, “if you have a [Cubs] player who’s injured and needs a quick rehab, you don’t have to put him on a plane.” Instead, the big league team can simply drive re-habbing players some 40 miles out to Kane County for a faster turnaround.

He noted both the Yankees and Mets now have minor league teams close by in New York — the Staten Island Yankees and the Brooklyn Cyclones respectively. Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner was once a member of the Staten Island team, he said.

Having minor league players play close geographically to the parent team “allows fans to get an early look at players and identify with them through their careers,” added Ganis.

The Cubs connection with Peoria helped the Cougars draw large crowds to Geneva to see then-Cubs Aramis Ramirez and Reed Johnson playing rehab stints with the Chiefs in July 2009, setting n attendance record of 14,872.

When Cub Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, who now skippers the Phillies AAA club in Lehigh Valley, Pa., managed the Peoria in 2008, the Cougars saw huge crowds, too.

In the Midwest League, the Dayton Dragons are affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds and consistently sell out home games, while the Lake County (Ohio) Captains are affiliated with the Cleveland Indians.

The A-level Midwest League usually holds prospects playing their first full professional season.

The Cougars came to Kane County from Wausau, Wis. and have seen success by presenting baseball in a family atmosphere with seats running from $10 to $14.

Over the club’s history, the Cougars have sent more than 100 players to the Major Leagues, including Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett, Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera, Rangers pitcher Ryan Dempster and Edgar Renteria, who retired from the Reds in 2011.

The team was affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles in 1991 and 1992, the Florida Marlins from 1993 through 2002, the Oakland A’s from 2003 through 2010, and with the Kansas City Royals from 2010.

Affiliations can come and go in minor league baseball, and the Peoria Chiefs have been with the Anaheim Angels in 1983 and 1984, the Cubs from 1985 through 1995, the St. Louis Cardinals from 1996 through 2004 and the Cubs again from 2005 through now.

Correspondent Mike Knapp contributed to this story.

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