I will always remember Brett Jackson as the prospect who humbled me.
Back in the pre-Epstein/Hoyer/McLeod days, Jackson was the Chicago Cubs’ clear top prospect. I didn’t have a great understanding of his swing issues, but I did know that (1) various rankings said he was a top 100 type prospect (something the Cubs barely seemed to have any of after 2004), and (2) he was a hell of an athlete.
And truly, Jackson was a supremely-gifted athlete: speed, power, quickness, and the ability to play any outfield position. This was a guy, I frequently pronounced, that would quite clearly be a long-time big leaguer. Even if he struck out a lot, his other talents would allow him to be a fantastic reserve outfielder. I was sure of it, and I said so quite a bit.
The information revolution in baseball – note, not “statistical” revolution, because scouting information has also been booming – has led us all thoughtful fans down a bumpy road of learning. You pick up a little bit of info, form a worldview, apply that worldview to players … just in time for our collective understanding to change. This cycle has been ongoing for more than a decade. I love the process, and I think we’re all better for it, but it does lead to things like Jackson being a top prospect and being crowned a guy who can’t miss because of his obvious talents in every area except the one that can sink you: making contact with the ball.
Thanks to Jackson, Cubs fans now have a particularly keen understanding of just how dangerous severe contact issues can be as a prospect moves up the minor league ladder. After the 2011 season, Jackson reached his peak ranking, topping out somewhere in the 30s on most lists. He’d just put up a 29.8% K rate at AAA, had shown a progressively higher rate at every level, and then topped that with a 33.8% K rate at AAA in 2012 before he was called up for an ill-fated tour with the big team.
Jackson never really recovered, and struggled through two more seasons at AAA. His strikeout rate was at 37.3% for Iowa this year.
And now he’s been traded to the Diamondbacks. Reportedly, the Diamondbacks claimed Jackson on trade waivers before making the trade (which means Jackson didn’t get very far up the ladder – he seems like a Diamondbacks kind of player (hard-working, hustle, talented but with some rough edges)).
As you might expect, the return on Jackson is not significant: it’s reliever Blake Cooper, who is 26 like Jackson. Drafted in the 12th round out of the University of South Carolina in 2010, Cooper has been a reliever all the way through the minors, with decent success. It looks like he’s not a huge strikeout guy, and his walk numbers have been increasingly concerning, but he’s also tough to hit. He recently reached AAA, where his walks are way up, but it’s a very small sample. In the end, he’s a lottery ticket, and the Cubs now have a spot on the 40-man roster opened up for future use.
Best of luck to Jackson with the Diamondbacks. Perhaps they’ll be able to figure out something in Jackson’s swing that the Cubs were never able to. Because Jackson really did have the physical gifts to merit the attention he got in those days when he was a top prospect, even if the rankings, themselves, were overly optimistic.