Brett Jackson came to the Cubs as the 31st overall pick out of UC Berkeley, selected in the first round of the 2009 draft for a $972,000 signing bonus. Jackson came on quickly in pro ball, powering through the AZL, the Northwest League, and the Midwest League before the 2009 season ended and began 2010 with Daytona in the FSL. Jackson hit well at every level of his minor league ascension, and though he had quite a bit of swing and miss to his game, with strikeout rates starting at 25% and rising at every stop through the organization, he showcased a very patient approach, consistently posting walk rates north of 10% while showcasing solid power and basestealing potential. It became something of a running twitter gag that the Brett Jackson Cycle was a strikeout, a walk, a homer, and a stolen base. The hope was that Jackson could become a Drew Stubbs-type, offering good on-base percentage and good pop while playing an acceptable defense in center.
Ominous signs began to manifest themselves at the beginning of 2012, when Jackson offered a fairly disappointing .256/.338/.479 line in the offense friendly PCL, particularly after Jackson had hit .297/.388/.551 in 48 games there the year before. Still, Jackson got himself a taste of the show in the second half, struggling to a .175/.303/.342 slash line and .114 wOBA in 44 games with the big league club.
The Cubs' coaching staff spent the offseason working with Jackson to re-tool his swing, hoping to drop eye-popping strikeout rates and help him make more contact without sacrificing power. He came into Spring Training with glowing reports from the organization about his progress and a whole lot of optimism surrounding his ability to adjust to big league pitching. The hope was that, after a period of solid performance in Des Moines, Jackson would prove himself ready to be a successful part of the major league club.
It's been an ugly, ugly year for Jackson, who's seen last year's hiccup turn into a free-fall in both his prospect status as well as his organizational level, starting the year struggling badly at Iowa, missing significant time injuries, and eventually being demoted to Double-A. He continued to struggle in tennesee, and his final lines for the year were incredibly disappointing, adding up to a .200/.309/.284 line at Iowa and a .223/.300/.367 line at Tennessee. Most disturbing is the complete vanishing of Jackson's power, managing only 6 home runs after hitting 20 and 19 in the past two seasons, respectively, and hitting only 21 extra base hits all season. His walk rate at Iowa was only 8.7% and 11.8% at Tennessee. His speed stats were down as well, failing to crack double digits after stealing 30 bags the past two seasons. At one point in the midst of his injury woes he even managed to get himself get himself lost. All in all, 2013 will be a season Jackson tries his best to forget.
Jackson's achilles heel has always been his propensity to swing and miss, and it's a problem that has gotten worse and worse as he's gotten older and higher up in the organizational ranks. The nadir of this was the 41.5% rate Jackson K'ed at in his 44 games with Chicago last season, but he hasn't posted a strikeout rate below 25% since his first go at Double-A. The much-ballyhooed swing changes were supposed to mitigate this, and the initial word around the organization going into camp was that Jackson had made a lot of progress in putting bat to ball.
Outside the organization, however, observers were less confident about the changes. Keith Law in particular had this to say about B-Jax's new swing:
Jackson used to have a very short stride without much of a load, and his hands, which have always been quick, would always seem to start forward from a different position. Now, he’s definitely more consistent, starting from a consistent spot with a slightly deeper load, but his stride is very long, leaving him with a wide base before he even gets his hands started, and producing a swing that looks unnaturally long for him. The stride doesn’t get his weight transfer started early enough, and he tends to roll that front foot over through contact. Everything we liked about Jackson before, from the speed to the athleticism to the bat speed to the arm, is still present, but I wish I could tell you I thought this new swing would solve his contact problems.
Law's remarks would prove prescient, given Jackson's struggles this season as Jackson has spent the season striking out once every three chances, all while seeing an 80+ point drop in his ISO. More recently, Jason Parks was asked in a Baseball Prospectus chat what kind of future B-Jax had in front of him:
ZigZagBurners (Right near the beach): If I'm Brett Jackson, my next move is….
Jason Parks: I hear Japan is nice
That about says it all, really. Jackson still has a good eye and very good makeup, but those are about the only things going for him at this point. His bat-to-ball skills are as lousy as ever, and he's seemingly lost the ability to drive the ball when he does square it up. It all adds up to a profile that doesn't look nearly as optimistic as it did even a year ago.
There's not much good to say. You can strike out a ton, and you can not hit for much power, but you can't really do both and still be a major leaguer. Given that Tennessee has proven a struggle for B-Jax, I'm not even sure Japan is a viable option at this point. And with the difficult 40-man decisions the Cubs are going to have to make this offseason, it would not at all shock me to see Jackson included as a reclamation throw-in as part of a trade.
If he does remain with the Cubs, I'd expect him to return to Tennessee. He's going to have to hit like a man possessed to stay there, with Jorge Soler, Albert Almora, and potentially even Kris Bryant passing through the Smokies' outfield in 2014. His major league future is already looking a shade north of nonexistant, and if he repeats his 2013 campaign next year, he'll be joining Hayden Simpson pretty damn quick.