After just this morning writing that the Chicago Cubs’ two top prospects at AAA Iowa – center fielder Brett Jackson and third baseman Josh Vitters – would be the subject of discussion for the next few weeks as the Cubs ponder their promotion schedule, it looks like the Cubs decided to step on the gas. According to miCubs, and later confirmed by Carrie Muskat, today, the Cubs have called up both Jackson and Vitters, for the series finale against the Dodgers.
There’s no word on corresponding roster moves (Jackson is not yet on the 40-man roster, by the way), but I think some safe guesses would be a Luis Valbuena DFA and Tony Campana heading back to Iowa. Joe Mather is probably also on the roster bubble. It’s possible there’s a trade in the works, too, but we’ve heard nothing about that right now.
It’s a bit earlier than either Jackson or Vitters was expected to arrive (Vitters does not yet have a full year at AAA, and Jackson hasn’t had a blow-out year he was expected to have there), but it’s not outrageously early for either one. Clearly, the Cubs have decided it’s time to see what they have in the two young men, on whom they might rely in 2013. Evaluating youngsters in September, when rosters expand, is always a tricky business, because the team is frequently playing another team full of its own youngsters. Calling the duo up now will give the Cubs both better data andmore data upon which to make their offseason decisions. It sounds like a very Theo/Jed/Jason move.
Jackson, 23, is ostensibly hitting decently at AAA Iowa: .256/.338/.479. But that line comes with a couple huge caveats. His BABIP is .372, which is higher than his career average (though, to be sure, Jackson will always have an elevated BABIP relative to the rest of the league, thanks to his speed, his left-handedness, and his high rate of line drives). And, relatedly, he’s striking out in more than a third of his plate appearances. I really can’t overstate how troubling that is. He does play quality outfield defense, and runs the bases extremely well, so there’s value there. But if he can’t get that strikeout rate down below 30%, he isn’t going to hit .225 in the bigs, and the value of his secondary skills becomes largely irrelevant (in other words, he becomes a slower Drew Stubbs).
Vitters, 22, is hitting .304/.356/.513 at AAA Iowa, where he is a bit young for the level. He’s walking more than ever, and showing more power than ever. Though you always have to take PCL numbers with a grain of salt, it’s fair to say Vitters is having the best offensive season of his career. The issue with him, however, has long been the defense at third base. Scouts say he just doesn’t have it – decent arm, but weak range and lead hands. I’m waiting to see for myself before passing judgment, but his 21 errors in just 95 games at third base this year certainly don’t impress.
Each will almost certainly become full-time players immediately (otherwise, what’s the point?). Vitters slots in easily at third, and Jackson probably takes over in center with David DeJesus moving back to right field. Bryan LaHair, unless there’s a trade, might be eating some bench.
As for contract stuff, you needn’t worry: the call-ups come long after the cut-off for making sure the Cubs get an extra year of control over each (assuming they stay up from here on out, neither would be eligible for free agency until after 2018), and after the likely cut-off for Super Two status (i.e., neither will get four years of arbitration, instead getting just three (that saves the Cubs money if they become quality players)).
I’m pretty excited to see these guys in action, and you should be, too. But make sure you ground that excitement in reality: there is no reason to expect that these two will tear up the bigs immediately (like, for example, Anthony Rizzo). And, even if they do, there is always a period of regression as the league adjusts. These final two months of the year will be as much about evaluation and learning as they are about putting up great stats. They might struggle. Badly. But it’s still going to be fun to see them on the big club, and it’s going to be good to get a better idea of how they might perform if they were counted on to be starters in 2013.
UPDATE: The two roster moves are, as guessed, Tony Campana heading down to Iowa, and (as not guessed) Jeff Baker being traded to the Detroit Tigers. At Iowa, Campana can slide back into Brett Jackson’s now-vacated starting spot in center field, and can get regular work. To the right team, Campana has so much value on the bench. That team, however, right now, is not the Chicago Cubs.