With the trade deadline having come and gone, the Cubs still have roster decisions to make in the coming weeks. With a few roster main-stays moving on, the question becomes who will replace them? The answers are currently playing at the Double- and Triple-A levels.
Anthony Rizzo’s arrival has thus far been a rousing success -- he has posted a .321 BA/.367 OBP/.571 SLG line to go along with eight home runs in 29 games -- and now people are starting to wonder if any other hot-shot prospects are ready to help the big league club.
Two names that keep popping up are outfielder Brett Jackson and third baseman Josh Vitters. With Reed Johnson traded and Luis Valbuena struggling (.194/.252/.331), it appears there may be a need for both at the major league level.
But two big questions remain: Are they actually ready to play at the next level? And if so, will they be playing every day?
“Whenever you bring guys like (Jackson and Vitters) up to the big leagues, it’s gotta be to play every day,” said manager Dale Sveum, who admitted that he could use another outfielder on the roster with the departure of Johnson. “You don’t bring them here to mix and match or try to put them in against weaker starting pitchers. You bring them here and they have to play every day.”
But more importantly than finding room for these two kids to play every day, is making sure they’re developmentally ready for the next level. In Vitters’ case, his defense has always been an issue at third base. On the offensive side of things, scouts have always raved about his beautiful swing. That’s starting to translate into production as he’s had a breakout season of sorts in Triple-A Iowa, hitting .296/.349/.496. Vitters’ biggest issue at the plate has been his lack of patience, he’s never been one to take many walks. But with still a month to play in the minor league season, he has a career-high 29 walks.
“He’s working hard at (his defense) and making strides,” Theo Epstein said of Vitters. “He’s doing a great job with the bat, I’d like to see him get on base as much as possible. I think he’ll soon turn that corner and start walking more as well because he’s become a bit of a feared hitter.”
As for Jackson, he came into the season ranked number 32 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect list. However, when BA released its midseason rankings this past July, Jackson was nowhere to be found. He has posted a respectable .814 OPS, but it’s another number that’s been jumping out at people of late, his 152 strikeouts.
“Everyone talks about (Jackson’s) strikeouts, contact is something we continue to address with him, try to put the ball in play more often,” Epstein said. “But it’s important not to overlook the things that he is doing well down there, playing good defense, running the bases well and when he is making contact he’s hitting the ball hard and for extra bases.”
Sveum was willing to acknowledge Jackson’s deficiencies, but also put a positive spin on his situation.
“Sometimes players just get to the big leagues and they hit better, you can’t even explain it,” Sveum mused. “Hanley Ramirez, when we had him in Boston, I remember he never put up any numbers in the minors. The next year he was in the big leagues (with the Florida Marlins) and he won Rookie of the Year. Some guys struggle with the third deck in the stadium and others perform better. It’s one of the more difficult things, predicting how players will handle the big leagues.”
Epstein and Sveum realize that each player is unique, there’s no hard and fast rule to bringing along a prospect. The recent success of Rizzo -- who struggled mightily during his brief stint in the majors with the San Diego Padres in 2011 -- hardly means they’ve mastered the art of developing young talent.
“It’s not an exact science, the primary rule we have is that every player has a development plan,” Epstein said. “Once they check all the boxes in that player development plan, then it’s time for them to be considered to be called up. There are other instances where you’re actually looking for a change of scenery or some sort of change to trigger their development as a player. So there’s no hard and fast rule for every players’ promotion.”
Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer were careful not to bring Rizzo up too early this season. They waited until they were absolutely certain that the young lefty had corrected any flaws – primarily a ‘long’ swing that made him susceptible to pitches on the inner-half of the plate -- and was ready for success in the big leagues. That approach clearly paid off and one should expect the same the same thought process to be in play with both Jackson and Vitters.