Can Jackson overcome strikeout woes?

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Can Jackson overcome strikeout woes?

Brett Jackson emerged in 2012 as a polarizing prospect.

The young, "toolsy" outfielder had worked his way up Baseball America's prospect ratings each of the past three seasons and had scouts and Cubs fans alike excited about the potential.

But then a crazy thing happened -- his strikeouts went from bad to worse. And then fell to just downright awful when he was called up to the majors.

Jackson struck out 126 times in 491 at-bats in 2010, then whiffed 138 times in 431 ABs in '11. He continued his collapse downhill with a whopping 158 strikeouts in just 407 ABs in Triple-A last season before tallying 59 in 120 ABs in the bigs.

Jackson, 24, actually reached a historic level with his strikeout rate. He struck out in 49.17 percent of his at-bats, which was the second-highest rate ever by a position player, with only Dave Duncan (yes, the legendary Cardinals pitching coach) coming in higher, with a 49.5 percent rate in 1967.

Baseball America has a really good feature on how players of Jackson's ilk have fared.

There are players with incredibly high strikeout rates who have had success at the big-league level, including current Cubs assistant hitting coach Rob Deer and former Cubs slugger Dave Kingman.

Then there are players who failed to meet expectations, including Brewers prospect Mat Gamel and Pirates slugger Brad Eldred.

The jury is still out on three guys, like Nationals outfielder Justin Maxwell, Mariners outfielder Trayvon Robinson and White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers.

So which category will Jackson fall under? The jury is still out on him -- just like Flowers and the others -- but he does bring a lot of other things to the table.

Jackson works the count (averaged 4.24 pitches per plate appearance in the MLB), plays solid defense in center (remember him crashing into the wall in Pittsburgh?) and displays a rare combination of power and speed (55 homers, 91 steals in minor-league career).

But the strikeouts can hold him back, especially if he continues to whiff in almost half his at-bats.

Jason Heyward surprised Cubs fans didn’t boo Rajai Davis more

Jason Heyward surprised Cubs fans didn’t boo Rajai Davis more

MESA, Ariz. – The Cactus League crowds are different than the ones packed into Wrigley Field. It was only a meaningless split-squad game on a Saturday afternoon in the Arizona sunshine. Finally winning the World Series must have somewhat dulled the edge.

But Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward still thought Rajai Davis would hear it from the sellout crowd of 14,929 at Sloan Park, the what-could-have-been anxiety bubbling up when seeing the Oakland A's leadoff guy who nearly changed the course of baseball history.

"I was surprised he didn't get booed more, but that's just how our fans are," Heyward said. "They're fun like that. They have fun with the game. They acknowledge it. That's pretty cool for Cubs fans to boo you. If anybody boos you from last year, that's kind of an honor, I would say. To be on that side of things, it means you did something great."

As Alfonso Soriano liked to say, they don't boo nobodies. With one big swing, Davis almost unleashed a miserable winter for the Cubs and ended the Cleveland Indians' 68-year drought.

Manager Joe Maddon kept pushing closer Aroldis Chapman, who fired 97 pitches in Games 5, 6, and 7 combined. Davis timed seven straight fastballs in the eighth inning – the last one at 97.1 mph – and drove a Game 7-tying two-run homer just inside the foul pole and onto the left-field patio. In a now-famous rain-delay speech, Heyward gathered his teammates in a Progressive Field weight room as the Cubs regained their composure.

"They booed him, but only the first at-bat," Heyward said. "The second at-bat and the third, I was like: ‘Eh, they kind of just let him off the hook.' They let him be."

The fans who stuck around until the end got to hear "Go Cubs Go" after a 4-3 win. Davis parlayed that big moment into a one-year, $6 million contract with the A's. The Cubs will see the Indians again on Sunday afternoon in Mesa.

"As players, we're all onto the season and enjoying this ride and a new journey," said Heyward, who went 0-for-3 with an RBI as he worked on his new swing. "All the teams that we played in the playoffs are obviously out here in spring training, so it's just really fun and it's good for the makeup of your team when you compete that way.

"You're thrown right back into the fire when you talk about the competition and remembering things that happened in the postseason. But we don't dwell on it too much."

Cubs envisioning ‘hybrid' roles for Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson

Cubs envisioning ‘hybrid' roles for Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs believe Mike Montgomery will be so much more than just the answer to a trivia question or a cameo appearance in the highlight film.

The symmetry became impossible to miss on Saturday at Sloan Park, where the Cubs put the World Series trophy on display behind home plate and set off fireworks at 1:06 p.m. Three minutes later, the guy who threw the last pitch of 2016 threw the first pitch 2017 pitch in Mesa.

That it came against Rajai Davis added to the moment. Scattered boos greeted Davis when the Oakland A's leadoff guy walked toward the batter's box, a reminder of how he almost turned a dream season into a nightmare when he slammed Aroldis Chapman's 97.1 mph fastball onto Progressive Field's left-field patio just inside the foul pole for a Game 7-tying two-run homer for the Cleveland Indians.

A year that began with Montgomery thinking he might be playing in Japan ended in that mosh pit. A lefty who had been viewed as a low-leverage swingman for the Seattle Mariners notched the final out of the World Series for a franchise that hadn't won one since 1908.

"Be ready for anything," Montgomery said when asked about the "hybrid" job description manager Joe Maddon laid out for him and Brett Anderson, the other lefty in the mix for the fifth-starter job.

"The big thing with both of them (is) neither one has really been stretched out anywhere close to 200 innings over the last couple years," Maddon said before a 4-3 split-squad win over Oakland. "So we're thinking it's almost like a hybrid moment. Maybe fold one back into the bullpen while the other one starts. And vice versa. Or just jump a sixth guy in there now and then to keep the other guys from being overworked too early.

"It's in theory right now. We haven't actually laid it down on paper. We feel pretty fortunate. If everybody stays healthy, you got six guys that you like right there. It's hard for anybody to say that. That's the point. These guys have not been really satisfactorily stretched out over the last couple years.

"How do we keep them both active and helping us? That's going to be our challenge early and through the beginning part of the season."

Anderson (29) is older and more experienced and working on a one-year, $3.5 million deal that could max out at $10 million if he rips off the injury-prone label and makes 29 starts. Montgomery (27) is the more raw talent (23 career big-league starts) the Cubs now control through the 2021 season.

"There's a lot of different possibilities that they could go with," Montgomery said. "For me, it's just continuing to build up my arm strength and getting my timing down, my mechanics down and that way I'm ready to go and do whatever it is that they need me to."

Pitching in front of 14,929 and an All-Star infield, Montgomery walked Davis and Matt Joyce and notched two strikeouts in a scoreless first inning. Montgomery felt the adrenaline rush, but nothing in Arizona can compare to the 10th inning of a Game 7.

"The sky's the limit," Maddon said. "He's like a 10-plus game winner on an annual basis as a starter. I think he definitely has that within his abilities. I've told him that (winning) 10 to 15 games is within his abilities, no doubt. That comes with fastball command and then knowing what to do with his breaking pitches. He's got really high-quality stuff.

"I'd like to think that moment will increase his confidence. But then again, it's a new year. And you have to go out there and pitch."