It's always an interesting test when an organization promotes a player up a level, with everyone involved curious to see how that prospect responds to the challenge. It's clear the Cubs' No. 1 prospect, Brett Jackson, passed with flying colors.
The 2009 first-round pick began the year with Double-A Tennessee. But after 67 games and a .256/.373/.443 line (to go along with 10 homers and 15 steals), he got bumped up to Triple-A and performed better than he had down a level.
In 48 games with Iowa, the outfielder hit .297/.388/.551, with 10 more homers and six steals, allowing him to finish with a 20-20 season. After taking some time to make adjustments -- he hit .233 in 60 July at-bats -- Jackson hit .351 in August.
Some of it was just a matter of getting his timing back. Jackson missed a chunk of games in May with a dislocated finger and had difficulty finding a rhythm. The timing of the promotion came at just the right time, in terms of his being ready for such a move.
"I think he's going to be an impact player," Cubs vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita said. "He plays better when he's challenged. I don't think we're close to seeing [everything he can do]. He thrives playing in front of bigger crowds; he thrives, responds and enjoys the challenges."
Many felt that after Jackson's strong finish that he'd get the challenge of playing at Wrigley Field in September. But that wasn't in the cards, perhaps partially because Jackson is not on the 40-man roster and won't have to be added for a while. Jackson wasn't fazed by it too much, and got the opportunity to play for USA Baseball for the second straight year to help cushion the blow.
"I understand the business of baseball," said Jackson, who hit .400 over 35 at-bats for Team USA. "Of course, I was disappointed. At the same time, I understand the transition Chicago is in now. Certainly, playing for my country and that extra month of baseball, it was definitely what I needed. I was happy to get to do that, despite not getting to play that extra month in Chicago."
Top 10 review
Jackson wasn't the only prospect in the system to excel in 2011 on the offensive end. Most notably, fellow outfielder Matt Szczur, now the organization's No. 2 prospect, made the transition from being a football player who played some baseball to a baseball-only guy look easy. He earned a promotion after the Futures Game and was on a Daytona club that went on to win the Florida State League title.
Overall, the Cubs are quite pleased with the fact the organization finished over .500, with three affiliates -- Tennessee, Daytona and Boise -- making the playoffs.
"Combining winning and development, we finished the regular season with the youngest team at every level we played in," Fleita said. "Our system is deep with a lot of guys who'll play in the Major Leagues, but maybe a little lacking in a deep pool of guys who will be impact players."
That might be especially true at the upper levels of the system and on the mound. Several of the top 10 pitchers at the start of the season didn't completely live up to expectations, with Trey McNutt (No. 4) and Jay Jackson (No. 7) getting most of that negative attention at the upper levels. Jackson, to be fair, finished strongly, with a 2.95 ERA over his final seven starts.
Cubs top 10 prospects
|1.||Brett Jackson, OF||B. Jackson|
|2.||Trey McNutt, RHP||Szczur|
|3.||Chris Carpenter, RHP||Carpenter|
|4.||Hayden Simpson, RHP||McNutt|
|5.||Josh Vitters, 3B||Vitters|
|6.||Jay Jackson, RHP||Dolis|
|7.||Rafael Dolis, RHP||J. Jackson|
|8.||Matt Szczur, OF||Golden|
|9.||Reggie Golden, OF||Simpson|
|10.||Darwin Barney, 2B||Robert Whitenack, RHP|
The strength may have been in the bullpen, as No. 3 prospect Chris Carpenter made the full-time transition to a relief role and was called upon to help out in Chicago. No. 6 Rafael Dolis had a very good year in Double-A, finishing second in the system in saves and making his Major League debut, for good measure. Marcus Hatley pitched at three levels in 2011, starting in Peoria and ending in Tennessee.
Beyond that, Fleita said, there's more help coming down below as the Cubs returned to focusing on pitching after a few years of searching out bats. He also was quick to point a finger at himself in terms of evaluating the performances of the pitchers in the Cubs system in 2011.
"You look at the last couple of Drafts, we drafted a lot of position players," Fleita said. "The next wave of starting pitching is coming, there's a wealth of guys coming at the lower levels.
"Some of [the pitching], you could blame me. The shortcomings could've been attributed to that I pushed them a little more quickly than I should have."
Organizational Players of the Year
MLB.com's Preseason Picks
Matt Szczur, OF: It was predicted, rightly, that Szczur would hit the ground running, hitting for average, some power and stealing some bases while making the Midwest League All-Star team. He did that, as well as making the Futures Game, while earning a promotion in July up to Daytona.
Trey McNutt, RHP The thinking was McNutt would compete for the organizational triple crown. It didn't exactly work out that way. McNutt finished with a 4.55 ERA over 95 innings, allowing Southern League hitters to hit .319 off of him.
MLB.com's Postseason Selections
Bryan LaHair, 1B: At age 28, he set an Iowa Cubs record with his organization- and Minors-leading 38 homers. He also topped the system, finishing fifth in the Minor Leagues with his 109 RBIs. Oh, and his .664 SLG also topped all Minor Leaguers. All that earned him his first callup to the big leagues since 2008.
Jeff Beliveau, LHP: Relievers were a strength, and Beliveau had a terrific 2011 season, pitching across two levels and finishing with a 1.57 ERA, a .192 batting average against and a 10.8 K/9 ratio.