Should Brett Jackson be starting for the Cubs?

Brett Jackson was the Cubs first round pick in 2009 and the 31st pick overall. It was the first time that I could remember that the Cubs selected someone who knew how to get on base. Jackson took a lot of walks on college and there was never any doubt as to his ability to reach base. He also had a lot of strikeouts, which concerned some people. It didn’t bother me. It was the change in philosophy that I liked most. I liked that even more than I liked picking Jackson and I though he had a very good chance to become a star for the Cubs.

I had become too familiar with the Cubs and their tendency to draft guys in the top rounds who could not get on base. Guys like Luis Montanez, Corey Patterson, Ryan Harvey, Tyler Colvin and even Josh Vitters. These guys couldn’t take a walk to save their lives. Brooks Kieschnick was OK, but far from great. Off the top of my head I look back at Kevin Orie as the last position player the Cubs drafted in the first round who actually knew how to take some pitches. I can’t remember too much about the skills of the players before him. Guys like Doug Glanville, Earl Cunningham, Ty Griffin and Derrick May. I should look into that sometime, but it’s not important here.

In 2009 the Cubs finally chose a guy who could work the count and I was thrilled. Not only could he work the count, but he hit for average, power, played a premium defensive position in CF, reportedly had a strong throwing arm and could get on base. While none of these tools apparently grade out as excellent, they were all above average. For years the Cubs had their so-called five tool talents. The only problem with guys like Patterson, Felix Pie and Ryan Harvey is that they weren’t five tool talents. None of them could get on base at a high enough rate for that to even be considered above average. Not without hitting for a high average anyway. In Brett Jackson they had a guy who you could fairly easily see hitting .300/.400/.500. I don’t think the Cubs have drafted anybody in at least ten years in the top few rounds who you could look at and think they could someday reasonably hit that well.

Jackson could easily have flamed out. The strikeouts could have been too difficult to overcome. There was certainly a possibility as there is with any prospect. It wasn’t that I thought Jackson was a for sure top talent in the draft. I liked it because he could get on base and that’s something the Cubs have not valued highly enough in the top round of the draft.

It’s now Jackson’s age 22 season and after his first full minor league season in 2010 he had already played about half a season at AA. He returned to AA to start the season this year and all he’s done so far is post a wOBA greater than .500. That’s all. It’s a small sample of course. He’s not Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth. Don’t get that excited.

Jackson has 4 doubles, 2 triples, 3 home runs, 12 walks, 6 stolen bases and he’s slugging over .750. He’s hit at every single level he’s been and he’s probably not long for AA. He won’t continue to hit as well as he has so far, but I think it’s becoming clear that AA just isn’t presenting him with much of a challenge at this point.

He’s almost certainly going to get some playing time this season for the Cubs. It could be as late as September, but I think it will be sometime in June. I think he continues to hit well enough the Cubs simply can’t overlook how damn good he is. It’s also easier for the Cubs because it’s not like they have an awesome hitting outfield or anything. It’s a very poor hitting outfield. The Cubs left fielder, Alfonso Soriano, is projected to hit .338 (wOBA) this season. Marlon Byrd is a bit worse at .335, Tyler Colvin is at .328. Kosuke Fukudome is the best hitting outfield and that’s largely because his playing time against lefties has been limited. His projected wOBA is .342. Brett Jackson’s projected wOBA is .326.

There’s actually very little difference in the projections between Brett Jackson and Kosuke Fukudome who has the best projected wOBA among the outfielders. Since Fukudome, Soriano and Colvin are corner outfielders, they’re not as valuable as Jackson who plays a much tougher defensive position. Byrd is the most valuable outfielder the Cubs have, but he plays CF. He’s projected to hit about 10 points of wOBA higher than Jackson, which isn’t at all significant. Byrd’s updated projection would be a bit lower while Jackson’s would be higher, but Byrd would still be the better hitter as far as projections go. Defensively, I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine. Byrd isn’t a great defender, but word is that Jackson isn’t a terrific one either. It’s probably fair to consider them equal on defense.

As a result, Jackson would be the superior player to the other outfielders. His defense in a corner would  be better than any of the others and since Jackson has shown an ability to hit lefties while Fukudome has struggled, we can safely assume Jackson is the second most valuable outfielder in the Cubs organization.

We don’t want to bring him up to play a corner outfield spot though. That would be stupid. His value to this team in the future is as a CF and that’s where you want to keep him. Since Byrd is the better player right now, you keep Jackson in the minors even though he’s the team’s second best outfielder. If you can move Byrd at some point in the near future, go ahead and do so. There won’t be much of a loss, if any, if you switch to Jackson in CF. Jackson may even prove to be significantly better right out of the gate.

My guess is that is that Jackson hits well enough to earn a promotion to Iowa in the next 4 to 5 weeks and anytime after that he could get called up. I’d be kind of surprised if we don’t see Jackson sometime in June. I think the Cubs will make room for him in CF at some point. I know we’ve heard rumors about Marlon Byrd and the Nationals, but it’s too early for that. Each year it seems we hear about a player this early in the season the Cubs are looking to trade or even discussing with another team. Trades usually don’t happen this early in the season.