Chicago Cubs fans await the arrival of top outfield prospect Brett Jackson. You will forgive them if they keep their enthusiasm on a low burn: they've heard the "future outfield star" stuff before. Corey Patterson, Felix Pie, Ryan Harvey, David Kelton, Tyler Colvin. . .can Jackson succeed where others have failed? Let's take a look.
Brett Jackson wasn't drafted out of high school, but scouts were aware of him due to his athleticism. He was used as a reserve during his freshman year at the University of California in 2007, hitting .230/.382/.279 in 61 at-bats (note the high OBP), then took a regular job as a sophomore, hitting .307/.404/.441 in 202 at-bats. A strong Cape Cod League performance pushed him towards the top of draft lists entering 2009, and he backed that up with a .321/.410/.564 mark in 218 at-bats. His tools were considered worthy of a first-round selection, but his stock was harmed slightly by a high strikeout rate (61 whiffs) and he fell to the bottom of the round, 31st overall, signing for $972,000.
Jackson began his career with a 5-for-11 three-game warmup in the Arizona Rookie League, then moved up to Boise in the Northwest League where he hit .330/.443/.398. Bumped up to Low-A Peoria for August, he unleashed his power by hitting seven homers in 26 games, also stealing 11 bases with an overall .295/.383/.545 line in 112 at-bats. He split 2010 between High-A Daytona (.316/.420/.517 in 67 games) and Double-A Tennessee (.276/.366/.465 in 61 games), combining for 12 homers and 30 steals along with 73 walks.
He returned to Tennessee for the first half of 2011, hitting .256/.373/.443 with 10 homers in 67 games, then moved up to Triple-A Iowa for the second half, hitting .297/.388/.551 with 10 homers in 48 games. He returned to Iowa to begin 2012 and is off to something of a slow start with a .236/.343/.416 mark in 22 games. Overall, in 318 minor league games Jackson is a career .288/.390/.485 hitter, including .277/.373/.507 with 42 walks but 92 strikeouts in 70 Triple-A contests.
As you can surmise from the numbers, Jackson has an intriguing mixture of power and speed. Listed at 6-2, 210, the 23-year-old left-handed hitter doesn't have a poor tool: all of his tools are at least average. His arm is his weakest asset, with average strength but good accuracy. His power would rank about 60 on the 20-80 scale. His speed is also in the 60-range, although he may lose some of that as he gets older. He is a skilled stealer and an efficient baserunner, stealing bases at a 76% success clip in his minor league career. Defense is also a strength: he has experience at all three outfield spots but his speed and arm work very well in center.
Jackson is usually a selective hitter and works counts, keeping his walk rate up, which helps maintain solid OBPs even when his batting average slips. His biggest problem is keeping a consistent swing. At his best, Jackson shows excellent bat speed and plus power, generated by a compact stroke with some uppercut. However, his swing gets long at times, leading to a high strikeout rate. He'll swing over changeups, although Jackson will punish a mistake in the zone even when his swing isn't working well.
Jackson's broad mix of abilities is enticing, but spending more time in Triple-A should help him refine his approach and avoid the failures of the prospects before him. If you are a pessimistic Cubs fan, it is true that his strikeout rate is high enough to be sabermetrically worrisome. It helps that he draws walks, which is something that his prospect predecessors didn't do.