Prospect Report: Double-A Tennessee

Jackson stands out among Cubs prospects

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ZEBULON, N.C.—The best offense in the Southern League is in Tennessee, where the Cubs' Double-A affiliate leads the league in nearly every major offensive category.

One of the keys to the Smokies' offense is Brett Jackson, who in a recent five-game series at Carolina showed why he is the best prospect in the organization.

A first-round pick out of California in 2009, Jackson displayed a wide-ranging set of skills against the Mudcats. Jackson, 22, has good bat speed, shows aptitude for getting on base and drives the ball with authority across the diamond for line drives and home-run power. He's a good athlete who runs well, got good reads off the bat in center field and showed a strong arm.

At the plate, Jackson's success starts from his approach. Though he is prone to strikeouts, Jackson does a good job of recognizes balls and strikes and doesn't often expand his strike zone. That's one reason why he's tied for third in the Southern League with 13 walks, reached base at least once in his first 15 games and is off to a .350/.467/.633 start in 75 trips to the plate.

"I'm an aggressive hitter, but I take pride in my eye at the plate," said Jackson, who is 6-foot-2, 210 pounds. "I like getting on base, I like being a baserunner for a lineup with a lot of big guns, so that's given me the opportunity to score a lot of runs and be on base for some guys who can really swing the bat in our lineup. I do my best to get on base and sometimes I take my chances driving the ball and sometimes it finds some holes."

After primarily hitting third as a college sophomore, Jackson served as Cal's leadoff hitter his junior year and remains in that role for the Smokies. With his on-base skills it's a spot that suits him well.

"He has a good idea of the strike zone," Tennessee manager Brian Harper said. "He very rarely swings at bad pitches. He sees a lot of pitches, he can draw a walk. Brett's one of those kids, whatever role you put him in, he'll adjust to it and try to get better at it. You could put him in the three-hole just as easy as the one-hole, and he'll adjust to it. He has the intensity and the desire to do well."

Jackson has a good eye, speed (he ran out a ground ball to first base in 4.09 seconds) and lefthanded power to all fields. He fell a single short of the cycle on Wednesday, when he hit a first-pitch triple in the third inning and came back swinging in his next at-bat by taking a fastball over the right-center field fence on the first pitch he saw. The next night, Jackson went deep again, dropping the barrel on a fastball down on the outer half that he drove to the opposite for a home run.

Some scouts who saw Jackson in college worried that he wouldn't make enough contact in pro ball, but that hasn't slowed him yet. It is a valid concern, though, as Jackson will swing and miss a fair amount and has 14 whiffs this year. In his second trip to the plate last Tuesday, Jackson saw three pitches: A curveball in the dirt he swung at and missed, a fastball on the inside corner he swung through and another curveball he whiffed at for strike three.

With a stroke described in his 2009 draft report as using "an inward-turning, hand-pumping, leg-kicking, load-up-and-let-it-fly-swing," Jackson's swing has been evolving since he signed, with what Jackson refers to as a series of trial and error to find what works best for him.

"I can't even remember what I was thinking when I was in college," Jackson said. "I was trying to hit the ball hard, I'll tell you that much. There's certainly little things that I've focused on in my swing, but those are my own, and you try to make it a muscle memory thing so you can focus on the pitcher, focus on the ball and focus on the situation. That's the challenge of baseball, and I love it every day."

Vitters Waiting For Right Approach

When the Cubs made Josh Vitters the third overall pick out of high school in the 2007 draft, scouts saw great bat speed, outstanding feel for the barrel and an easy righthanded swing. Those ingredients are all still there for Vitters, 21, as he's shows a short swing and hands that can get to the ball in a hurry.

While it is a nice swing to have, one of scouts' criticisms of his game has been that he swings too often. In three full seasons between 2008-10, Vitters drew just 46 walks in 276 games, and he returned to Tennessee this year after hitting .223/.292/.383 in 63 games with the Smokies a year ago.

"It's just something that can always be improved on, I think," Vitters said. "Getting good pitches to hit is really one of the keys to hitting. You're just looking for something to handle and drive and drive in runs."

"It's just something that still is maturing," he added. "This year I'm starting to realize I don't have to hit a pitch just because it's a strike, especially early in the count. I'm just trying to look for a pitch I can drive, not just make contact with."

Vitters' ability to put the bat to the ball isn't in question. Off to a .246/.303/.475 start, Vitters has just six strikeouts in 66 trips to the plate—the lowest strikeout rate in the Southern League—yet his OBP has suffered as he's drawn just three walks.

"I feel that my hand-eye coordination, it's great, but it works against me sometimes," Vitters said. "I'll swing at pitches a little out of the zone and I'll make contact with it. It's definitely something I'm trying to work on, just finding an ideal pitch to hit early in the count and something I can really drive instead of just a pitch to make contact with."

His approach is still a work in progress. Against Carolina, Vitters had several at-bats that lasted just three or fewer pitches, including a string of three straight trips to the plate on Friday in which he dug himself into an 0-2 hole. A below-average runner at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Vitters will also have to bring along his defense, as some scouts who have seen him this year have questioned his ability to stick at the position, though he does have a strong arm.

"Josh is young and he's maturing a lot," Harper said. "I've been real impressed with his two-strike approach—he's hardly struck out at all this year. He's got as quick a bat as anybody. He can hit a fastball as good as anybody, and he's done a good job on offspeed pitches too. Josh is really maturing into a good hitter."

Flaherty A Man Of Many Gloves

At a park where it's 400 feet to center field with a wall nearly 25 feet high, it's rare to see anyone hit a home run to the middle of the park in Carolina, even in batting practice.

Ryan Flaherty hit just 10 home runs last year playing mostly in high Class A Daytona, but he accomplished the feat on Monday, crushing a fastball over the center field wall. With runners on first and second in the sixth inning, Flaherty whiffed at a curveball to start the at-bat, then worked his way to that 3-1 pitch by laying off a pair of breaking balls and a fastball outside the strike zone.

"I had a pretty good idea that he was probably going to try to throw something low and away and try to get me to roll over, but I stayed underneath it and stayed through it," Flaherty said. "I was fortunate enough that I got it up in the air and into center field. I had two thoughts to do there, which was to either try to pull the ball, but I was thinking he was going to throw away, so I tried to stay through the middle of the field."

For Flaherty, 24, that ability to use the middle of the field is one of the keys to his hitting. A high-waisted 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Flaherty has a quick lefthanded bat and packs surprising power into his frame.

"He's a very good hitter," Harper said. "He's got tremendous power. Power that plays in the big leagues is power through the middle of the field, and he has that. He hit an opposite field home run the other day. Pull power in the minor leagues doesn't translate to the big leagues. Big league power is power through the middle of the field, and Ryan has shown that at times this year.

"If you look at the guys who hit a lot of home runs in the big leagues, it's guys who use the whole field. Guys who just pull home runs are not really power hitters. Ryan has shown that he can hit the ball out to left-center, straight away center, and that power translates to the big leagues."

Against Carolina, he expanded his strike zone on occasion but showed the ability to work deep counts, something he's done even before the Cubs made him a supplemental first-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2008. Facing lefthander Travis Webb in the fourth inning on Friday, Flaherty worked his way to a 3-2 count, then went with a fastball on the outer half and took it the opposite way for a fly ball down the left field line that landed for a double.

"I don't like to think of myself as trying to be a home run hitter, but so far this year I've hit a couple early," Flaherty said. "I'm more just trying to stay in the middle of the field, not worrying about trying to hit home runs to the pull side. If I stay in the middle of the field, I have the confidence that I can get it out to that part of the field, so when I start getting in trouble I know it's when I start trying to pull the ball out of the yard. I'd rather stay in the middle with line drives, and if I try to do that, those balls will go out."

Flaherty is off to a hot start at the plate, hitting .328/.386/.623 in 18 games. One question scouts have about Flaherty, though, is where he'll play. A shortstop in college, Flaherty has played second base, third base, left field, right field and a bit of shortstop for the Smokies. He's a below-average runner and isn't a standout at any position, so he could become an offensive-oriented utilityman in the majors.

"The footwork's different at every position," Flaherty said. "When you're turning the double play at second base, that's completely different than even shortstop turning a double play. But once you get the basics of it, the best you can do is take a lot of ground balls in batting practice or fly balls if it's left field or right field. In the infield, it's just reps at every position. The more you play there, the more things happen that maybe hadn't happened before and you just try to learn from it and just keep getting better at each position because mostly the footwork's different at each position."

In his first full season with low Class A Peoria in 2009, Flaherty played mostly second base and shortstop, though he did get in 19 games at third base. Last year, Flaherty spent most of his time at third base, with some time at second as well.

"It was hard when I first started playing third because I wasn't used to fielding a ground ball like that," Flaherty said. "I was used to playing shortstop, playing second and you have time. The hardest thing at those positions is the double play, but at third base you've really got stay low and you've got to really pay attention to the ball because it's on you so fast, whereas at shortstop you have more time to react. You have to move more. At third you don't have to move as much, but that ball's going to come at you, and it's usually hit pretty hard. From that regard, the biggest adjustment playing third was trying to stay lower. You have to watch the ball the whole way because it's going to get on you quick."

Sometimes Harper will give Flaherty a heads up the day before to let him know what position he'll be playing the next day. Other times, it's only a few hours notice. Flaherty, though, said he enjoys the spontaneity of it and the challenge of playing so many positions. So where does Flaherty feel the most comfortable?

"For a while when I first started doing it, it was obviously shortstop because I played there the longest," Flaherty said. "Now I'm finally starting to feel that it doesn't matter where I'm playing—second, short, third, left, right, even at first—I feel as comfortable at each position, one from another, which is my ultimate goal, to be able to play every position and not have one I'm better or one stronger or weaker at."

Dominican Arms Boast Power Stuff

Dominican righthanders Rafael Dolis and Alberto Cabrera, the Cubs' Nos. 7 and 9 prospects, threw against Carolina, though Dolis had to leave his start last Tuesday in the third inning when he tweaked his back after slipping on one of his pitches. It wasn't a serious injury, though, and Dolis returned to the mound yesterday.

In 2 1/3 innings at Carolina, Dolis (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) struck out three and didn't allow a hit or a run, though he did walk three batters. The 23-year-old ranged from 91-96 mph with his fastball, though he regularly sat in the higher end of that range from 94-96. A former shortstop, Dolis pitched true to his scouting report, throwing in the mid-90s but struggling to repeat his delivery and throw strikes as he became prone to overthrowing. Dolis also mixed in an inconsistent curveball, a mid-70s offering early in the count as a get-over pitch and a high-70s breaker he used once he got to two strikes.

On Friday, the 22-year-old Cabrera (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) pitched through a cool drizzle and allowed four runs in six innings, surrendering six hits and one walk while striking out five. Cabrera, whose younger brother Mauricio signed with the Braves for $400,000 last year on July 2, showed a power fastball that sat at 90-94 mph and touched 95.

Cabrera also threw an 81-86 mph slider that was solid at times but tended to get slurvy as well as an occasional 84-87 mph changeup. Cabrera leaned heavily on his slider toward the end of his outing, using the pitch almost exclusively against a handful of righthanded-hitting Mudcats who have had difficulties handling breaking stuff this year.