josh vitters brett jacksonIn early August 2012, the focus of a great deal of Chicago Cubs attention was squarely pointed at Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters. The two were, at the time, among the top legacy positional prospects in the organization, and they were certainly the two that were closest to the big leagues. Each was a former first round pick, and each was dreamed upon as a future piece for the big league team. When would they make their debut, we wondered, and more importantly: how would they fare?

On August 5 of that year, the two were called up on the same day, and, in a demonstration of what that 2012 season was like, the call-ups were met with overwhelming excitement. I tried my best to describe, as of that day, where things stood with the two prospects:

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.

Unfortunately, the well-founded concerns associated with Jackson and Vitters proved prescient, as so often is the case with prospects (always remember that!). Jackson continued to struggle with serious contact issues, both in his call-up and in the ensuing 2013 season. Vitters, who also struggled in his limited time in the bigs, was eventually moved off of third base, and enters 2014 as an outfielder. Each battled injuries in 2013, though it’s important to draw at least one distinction: when healthy, Vitters hit very well in 2013. Jackson, who dramatically reworked his swing, unfortunately did not.

And now the two former top prospects are linked once again, as each has arrived early to Spring Training with the hopes of securing a big league job (as outfielders, and with a crowded bench, they could actually now be in direct competition). Even before that, however, there’s merely a hope that they can show they’ve still got a future with the organization. Each is currently on the 40-man roster.

There are a handful of great write-ups on Jackson’s and Vitters’ offseasons, and where their minds are at right now as Spring Training begins: Patrick Mooney on Jackson here, Carrie Muskat on Jackson here, and Jesse Rogers on Vitters and Jackson here. Among the takeaways:

  • Jackson isn’t completely abandoning the swing changes implemented last year, though he’s trying to make them feel a little more natural for him. “The changes I was trying to make last year had all the right intentions and all the right cues for me to become a better player,” he said, per Cubs.com. “However, I was fighting my nature, I was fighting who I was as a natural athlete, and I think that made my time at the plate a struggle.”
  • Jackson is definitely a gifted natural athlete, but the Cubs had to do something, given that Jackson’s “nature” was to have serious contact issues. Maybe last year’s changes were just the first step along the path to Jackson reworking his swing in a way that will work for him. He needn’t completely cut out the strikeouts to be a valuable piece, at least on the bench, long-term, given how well he does everything else (speed, defense, power).
  • It seems like the best case scenario for Jackson is a demonstration in Spring Training that his new swing is finally paying dividends, and securing a starting job in the Iowa outfield. From there, he’ll have an opportunity to rework himself into the organization’s plans, while remaining on the 40-man roster. At 25, there’s still a potential future for Jackson, but the first half of this season might be his last chance to prove it.
  • As for Vitters, I think it’s important to point out that, at 24, and after a great deal of success at AAA, his bat still projects as big league-capable – anywhere from bench-caliber, to starting caliber (even in a corner outfield spot). His “down” 2013 season was entirely the product of a variety of injuries, and he hit extremely well when he was on the field. It’s not inconceivable that, if his transition to the outfield takes, Vitters could be a better near-term option as the starter in left field than Junior Lake.
  • Vitters took the offseason off, in terms of playing games, and instead focused on the mental side of the game with the Cubs’ sports psychologist, per Rogers’ piece. I’ll be very interested to hear/see how Vitters looks in the outfield, and whether he’s carrying forward the bat he’s shown the last two years at AAA. If the power and plate discipline continue to improve, as it looks like they have, Vitters will have a future in the big leagues in some capacity. It could start as soon as this year with the Cubs. But, starting the year back in AAA as a starting outfielder (likely left field) definitely shouldn’t be viewed as any kind of step back.
  • In the end, the big league emergence of Jackson or Vitters should probably be viewed as a bonus, rather than something the organization is counting on (the fan mindset, at least, should be very different today than it was in August 2012). The good news for these guys is that there are absolutely near-term jobs to be had in the big league outfield, with many of the top prospects currently either in the infield or a couple years away.


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