It’s about damn time. In a span of 41 days, the Cubs have called up three of their very best prospects from Iowa: Anthony Rizzo on June 26, with both Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters following suit yesterday. Even in the midst of a five-game losing streak, I have nothing but positive feelings about what has finally come to be: the Cubs’ front office has officially made way for the future of the ball club, giving Jackson and Vitters the opportunity to showcase their talents for the last two months of the all-but-lost 2012 season. Whether or not they’re completely ready for the big leagues remains to be seen, but you’ve got to think that, with nearly negative production from third base and Bryan Lahair struggling mightily since the early part of the season, the two youngsters are here to stay for the rest of the season.
It has been a pretty rough few years in the minors for Josh Vitters, but the former third overall pick in the 2007 draft finally broke out for the Iowa Cubs this season. By sporting .304/.356/.513/ splits along with 17 homers and 68 RBIs, it was only a matter of time until the highly touted third baseman got his number called. Sure, his defense needs a lot of work (23 errors for Iowa), but it’s nothing that can’t be improved upon. Repetition is the most important thing for a young ball player, and Vitters will be sure to get a lot of it over the next two months. Word on the street is that he will only play against left-handed pitchers, but I won’t believe it until I see it. Not only is Luis Valbuena anemic offensively (.198 BA) and won’t have any impact on the future of this team, but Vitters is coming off a successful minor league campaign in which he hit .290 in 279 at-bats against righties at Iowa. Dale Sveum would be making a gigantic mistake if he decided to follow through on this rumor. Vitters wasn’t in the lineup yesterday against the Dodgers, but with lefty Eric Stults on the mound for San Diego tonight, I fully expect to see him make his major league debut as a starting third baseman.
Once Anthony Rizzo left Iowa and never looked back, Brett Jackson became the top prospect in the Cubs organization. He has 20-20 potential at the big league level and has the ability to play all three outfield spots very effectively. His promotion means that we won’t be seeing Tony Campana back in a Cub uniform any time soon, and it also pushes David DeJesus to right field (where he should be) and Bryan Lahair to the bench (also where he should be). Jackson looked very solid in his debut yesterday, going 2/4 with a run scored and a walk.
As promising as Cub fans make him out to be, though, Jackson certainly comes in with some red flags. His huge strikeout rate (158 strikeouts in 407 at-bats this season) is definitely a concern, and his batting average at Iowa dropped from .297 in 2011 (48 games) to .256 this season (106 games). It wouldn’t surprise me to see him start out slowly as he adapts to major league pitching; however, Jackson draws a lot of walks (47 this season with a .338 on-base percentage) and has that rare power-speed combination, which he demonstrated at Iowa by hitting 15 home runs and converting 27 of 32 stolen base attempts, that can help make up for some of his offensive shortcomings. Batting second in front of Anthony Rizzo should also benefit him majorly and give him the opportunity to score a ton of runs in the future (led Iowa with 66 runs scored).
The Cubs youth movement has started to go into full effect. They now have 11 players on their 25-man roster who were not with the team on Opening Day. There will be many growing pains from here on out, but that’s to be expected. It would be wise for Cubs fans to keep their expectations rather low and not be too critical of these young guys, as this is both their first major league stints. Remember, it was only a year ago that Anthony Rizzo completely shat the bed during his first call-up experience in San Diego; look what a little more time in the minor leagues did for him. Jackson and Vitters will use these two months to understand what it takes to be successful in the National League and figure out what they must improve on during the offseason and beyond. It will continue to take time and patience, but soon enough, the Cubs will no longer be considered a rebuilding project. And it will all have started with the promotions of Rizzo, Jackson and Vitters during the summer of 2012.
I get it. The Cubs haven’t won a world series since 20 years BEFORE sliced bread. I don’t need Cub haters to keep reminding me. I’m as realistic a sports fan as there is – the Cubs aren’t going anywhere this year either. Unfortunately, some irrationally optimistic Cubs fans I know beg to differ. Just last night, a friend of mine guaranteed me that a) the Cubs would finish at least .500 and b) they have a legitimate shot at winning the division. I’m not lying either. I tried kicking him out of his own house, but that didn’t work. I understand that people like to be hopeful and what not, but c’mon man. I love the Cubs more than life itself, but patience is a virtue. It will take years for Theo and Jed to rebuild this team from basically ground up where He Who Must Not Be Named (eh what the hell, his name is Jim Hendry. And I hate him) left us to rot. That being said, there are a couple of potential stars waiting for their names to be called as they continue to improve in Iowa. Their names: Anthony Rizzo and Brett Jackson. The problem is that many Cubs fans want them called up NOW. My take on that: absolutely not.
First of all, the Cubs are not going anywhere this year. They will probably finish 5th or 6th in the NL Central – 4th would be a stretch in my opinion (God help me if we finish below the Abysmal Astros in the division, which is exactly where we sit right now). Second of all, I don’t care how well Rizzo has been playing in the minors. We all saw what happened last year. He torched triple A pitching through 90 games or so, cranking 26 homers, driving in 101 runs and posting .331/.404/.652 splits. Ridiculous. But then San Diego called him up, and through 128 at bats, he only had 18 hits and struck out 46 times. Yes, he’s currently batting .364 with 7 homers and 25 RBIs in his first 28 games at Iowa, but is there really any reason to call him up right this second and risk him losing his confidence like last year? I don’t think so. I say Theo waits and lets the kid keep raking in Iowa, then calls him up in August or even September to let him showcase his talents. He’s dealt with the greatest adversity of all in beating cancer, so I have no doubt in my mind that Rizzo will work his ass off and eventually become a machine at the major league level. Plus, no need to push Lahair to the outfield this soon to make room for Rizzo at first. People underrate what switching to an unfamiliar position can do to a hitter’s confidence at the plate.
As for Jackson, let’s just say he can definitely use some more time in the minors. Yes, I know that we traded Marlon Byrd and essentially have a platoon in center field between Tony Campana and Joe Mather. Calling him up just sounds like the right thing to do. But he’s really struggled at the minor league level at times. Here’s ESPN’s Keith Law’s scouting report on him:
“Jackson has solid tools across the board, but they’re mitigated by a longstanding problem with contact that really limits his offensive upside. Jackson has some bat speed with very little load, getting his weight settled late and not letting the ball travel that well. So despite his size and athleticism, he doesn’t project for more than average power. He’s an above-average runner who can handle center field and could be worth five runs a year or so there in a full season, or he could move to left and potentially be plus there.
But he punched out in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances in Triple-A, and only two big leaguers qualified for the batting title in 2011 with that kind of strikeout rate — Drew Stubbs and Mark Reynolds, who had a combined OBP of .322. If Jackson can’t figure out how to make better contact, he’s probably a solid-average regular; but he could be a grade better if his hit tool improves.”
Simply put, he’s a strikeout machine, and he’s currently struggling in the early going at Iowa. Nothing pisses me off more than a .240 hitter who strikes out a ton. I really can’t stand that. Forget the home runs for a second: Mark Reynolds is a career .236 hitter with 996 strikeouts in 740 games. Drew Stubbs is a career .251 hitter with 451 strikeouts in 375 games. I get that Jackson will probably never be Yadier Molina in terms of strikeout numbers. But do you really want to call up Jackson now before he learns how to minimize those holes in his game? I sure don’t. We gotta be patient with him.
In the meantime, we’ll have to wait ’til… 2015? Now that’s being optimistic.