As Cubs push youth movement, what about Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters?

As Cubs push youth movement, what about Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters?
February 11, 2014, 12:30 pm
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Whatever happened to Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters?

The true believers wanted to know at last month’s Cubs Convention. But those former first-round picks have been largely forgotten on all the prospect lists this winter, replaced by hotter names of the moment.

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How’s this for short-term memory? President of baseball operations Theo Epstein didn’t mention Dale Sveum by name – but still pinned it on the ex-manager – while explaining the decision to promote Jackson to the big leagues in August 2012. 

“In Brett Jackson’s case, we were looking to make a very specific swing adjustment,” Epstein told the fans packed into a downtown hotel ballroom for a WGN Radio Q&A session. “Actually, our manager was the one who wanted him up here to work with him on his swing.

“We weren’t getting that done at Triple-A, so we sort of prioritized that swing adjustment over the rest of his development and we were trying to spur him on. He had sort of plateaued a little bit at Triple-A. I think, in hindsight, that was a mistake.”

The Cubs will have a new manager (Rick Renteria) and a new complex when camp opens this week in Mesa, Ariz. Two big names from the old regime – Jackson and Vitters – will be trying to reboot their careers when the full-squad workouts begin Feb. 19.

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Jackson is 25 years old and should still have that interesting power/speed combination, along with a Cal-Berkeley pedigree and the athleticism to play center field. But the swing-and-miss issues didn’t go away and he couldn’t build off that 2012 cameo appearance at Wrigley Field.

Slowed by injuries last season, Jackson hit .223 with six homers and 23 RBI in 61 games at Triple-A Iowa and got bumped back to Double-A Tennessee. He finished with 121 strikeouts in 367 minor-league plate appearances.

It was a dizzying fall for a player who got such a ringing endorsement from the manager in late March 2012, when the Cubs were trying to get rid of Marlon Byrd and hoping Jackson would force the issue that summer in Iowa.

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“He’s the type of kid that’s going to put the pressure on us to get him here one way or the other,” Sveum said then. “This will be my ninth year coaching in the big leagues. (He’s probably) the best young player that I’ve seen in major-league camp.”

When the Cubs called up Jackson and Vitters in August 2012, they had to wake up early to make it in time for a day game at Dodger Stadium. Together they flew from Des Moines to Dallas to Los Angeles, leading Vitters to say: “We were kind of like zombies on the plane.”

During that audition, Vitters didn’t answer the questions about his defense at third base. He also didn’t make up for it with his offense, going 12-for-99 (.121) with 33 strikeouts.

“With Vitters, it was also a situation where we were trying to learn a little bit more about him,” Epstein said. “He had gotten to a point where exposure to big-league pitching was important to him. But now he’s a leftfielder (and) had a pretty good year swinging the bat when he was healthy at Triple-A last year. He’s going to come to camp with an opportunity to carve a role for himself in the big leagues.”

Vitters was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 draft and that year Baseball America rated him as the best pure high-school hitter in his class. Baseball Prospectus also ranked him as the best position player coming out of high school that year.

[Cubs Prospect Watch: Kris Bryant ignores the hype]

Vitters has been injury-prone while also showing flashes of potential, developing into a Pacific Coast League All-Star in 2012 and putting up an .891 OPS in only 28 games with Iowa last year.

“It was a tough year for both (Vitters and Jackson),” said Jason McLeod, the vice president of scouting and player development. “They had to deal with some adversity with some injuries. They just did not stay on the field long enough, first and foremost. (We) still have a belief in both of them.

“Especially a guy like Josh – who was drafted in 2007 – you’ve heard his name so much over the years. You’d probably think he was 26 years old or 25 years old. This is someone who’s looking to play the upcoming year at 24. So when he was on the field, his performance was still pretty good. He’s kind of born to hit, and he’s always hit. There are some parts of his game that we felt he had to work on.

“With Brett, it’s the same thing. (They) both took this offseason to regroup (and) get healthy.”

Jackson and Vitters aren’t part of the Core Four. They’re no longer viewed as foundation pieces at Wrigley Field. The new kids will dominate the headlines in Mesa. But at this point, that might not be such a bad thing.

If the Cubs are going to keep having summer sell-offs, holding youth-movement auditions and breaking franchise records for players used in a season, maybe Jackson and Vitters will get another chance to live up to the hype.