Currently in the early stages of what will be a long rebuilding process, the Chicago Cubs currently own the second-worst record (55-87) in baseball, ahead of only the American League West-bound Houston Astros (45-97).
However, the same lack of competitiveness has also allowed the organization to usher in a wave of prospects in 1B Anthony Rizzo, OF Brett Jackson and 3B Josh Vitters—all of whom ideally factor into the team’s the long-term plans.
But of the three players, Rizzo is the only one to show consistency in the major leagues this season. That’s not to say that both Jackson and Vitters haven’t had their moments since getting called up. It’s just that their weaknesses have been more obvious—weaknesses that have prevented them from reaching the major leagues until now.
The more heralded of the three prospects, Anthony Rizzo was acquired this past offseason from the Padres in exchange for right-hander Andrew Cashner. At the time of the trade, the left-handed slugger had played 49 games in the major leagues, batting .141/.281/.242 with 46 strikeouts in 128 at-bats.
As is the case with nearly every Cubs prospect with a hint of upside, Rizzo quickly emerged as a fan favorite. After batting .342/.405/.696 with 23 home runs and 62 RBI at Triple-A Iowa, he was finally called up to the major leagues.
By lowering his hands in his setup, Rizzo addressed the issues that were the source of his struggles with the Padres in 2011. It allowed him to drive the ball the other way with consistency as well as stay closed longer against left-handed pitchers.
In his Cubs debut on June 26, Rizzo was 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI. Hitting in the middle of the order, the now-23-year-old has been one of the more productive rookies in the National League, batting .295/.349/.467 with nine doubles, 12 home runs and 34 RBI in 68 games.
Despite Rizzo’s immediate success and impact in the major leagues, the Cubs decided to hold off on promoting Jackson and Vitters. While both players were agreeably ready for a greater challenge, they weren’t necessarily big league ready.
The Cubs’ first-round draft pick in 2009, Jackson, 24, is a toolsy outfielder with above-average power and speed. However, there are still legitimate questions about his hit tool.
In 2011, Jackson amassed 20 home runs, 21 stolen bases, 73 walks and 138 strikeouts in 115 games between Double-A and Triple-A.
Even though he still flashed the same promising power-speed combination this season (15 HR, 27 SB), his strikeout and walk rates trended in a concerning direction. Playing in 106 games for Triple-A Iowa this season, the left-handed hitter fanned 158 times compared to only 47 walks.
His swing-and-miss tendency has been exploited since reaching the major leagues, as he’s struck out 48 times in 94 at-bats (31 games). Although he’s blasted four home runs, his batting average sits at a paltry .191.
It’s already obvious that Jackson has the makings of a big league center fielder—the right side of his face will attest to that. However, a 43.6 percent strikeout rate is simply unacceptable.
Also a first-round selection of the Cubs (in 2007), it feels as though Vitters has been part of their farm system for an eternity. Yet, the third baseman is only 23 years old.
The Cubs have eased him up the ladder, as he didn’t graduate from A-Ball until his fourth season in the minor leagues. But that’s also of a result of Vitters’ inability to draw a walk and insistence on chasing pitcher’s pitches.
After posting a .770 OPS at Double-A Tennessee in 2011, the right-handed hitter responded favorably to a promotion to Triple-A Iowa this season.
Vitters posted a host career-best numbers for Iowa, batting .304/.356/.513 with 32 doubles, 17 home runs, 77 strikeouts and 30 walks. But much like Jackson, his pitch-recognition skills and overall plate discipline has been exploited repeatedly in the major leagues.
Through his first 25 games with the Cubs, Vitters is batting .093/.148/.200 with seven hits (two home runs), 25 strikeouts and four walks in 75 at-bats. Suffice it to say, he's looked greatly overmatched in a majority of his at-bats.
What separates Rizzo from Jackson and Vitters is that he made a necessary adjustment to both his swing and approach this season. Jackson and Vitters, on the other hand, have seemingly plateaued in their development, which has been reflected by their performances in the big leagues.
Although the potential is still there, both players continually fall victim to their own respective shortcoming at the plate. And until they each learn to make frequent adjustments rather than rely on what’s worked thus far, both Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters merely give everyone something to dream on.
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