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Rogers: Cubs’ Brett Jackson starts from scratch

Published: Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 9:31 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — MESA, Ariz. — He knows what they’re saying about him upstairs at Wrigley Field, not to mention at the Cubby Bear and Murphy’s Bleachers. He knows he’s no longer seen as a candidate to take over center field for the Cubs, not this spring anyway.

Brett Jackson understands, and it’s water off a duck’s back.

“I’m aware of comments they’ve made,” Jackson said Sunday, referring to his having a reserved spot in the Iowa lineup. “That’s fine. That doesn’t detract from me playing the way I want to play. I’m going to play like I deserve to be on the team ... I’m going to do everything in my power to be on this team.”

Jackson can wait a little longer to get back to the big leagues, if he has to. What he can’t do is fail to hit the ball when he gets there, as was the case in September.

“One of the reasons he was there was for us to get a good look at him, see how he would do against big-league pitching,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. “Well, there were some important adjustments (he) had to make. He has done a good job (adjusting).”

Not that long ago, the 24-year-old Jackson was widely considered the best prospect in the Cubs organization. He’s a Jim Edmonds starter kit, but these days he’s more often mentioned with baseball’s most strikeout-prone hitters, guys like Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds.

Jackson finally had enough after his whiffing 217 times last year, including 59 in 142 at-bats after receiving a late-season promotion from Triple-A Iowa.

If he was ever going to be open to a suggestion that he overhaul his swing, this was it. He played in 44 games for the Cubs, including 31 of the 102 losses. The hole he dug just got deeper and deeper as he hit .116 with one extra-base hit in his last 20 games.

After a month off to clear his head, the left-handed-hitting Jackson met with Sveum and hitting coach James Rowson in Arizona. They worked to lower his left elbow — effectively dropping his hands and leaving less room for the bat to travel to the ball — and on other ways to shorten his swing. They also worked hard to rebuild his confidence.

All three parties are delighted with the early returns, especially Jackson. He had two triples in the Cactus League opener against the Angels on Saturday after making contact — frequently hard contact — in intrasquad games and batting practice.

“So far, so good,” Sveum said. “It’s (only about) five at-bats, and he has centered the ball. The first one he hit to center field (Saturday) was a great swing. That’s about as quick as you can get a bat through the strike zone.”

Sound familiar? This time a year ago, Sveum was similarly encouraged about Anthony Rizzo.

Then-hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and Sveum were working to rebuild the swing of Rizzo, who had been acquired from the Padres with a little extra baggage. He batted .141 with 46 strikeouts in 153 plate appearances for the Padres in 2011. His OPS was .523 — much lower than Jackson’s .644 last year.

Does that tell us anything? Maybe not, but Rizzo bounced back to hit .285 with 15 homers and an .805 OPS after spending half of last season at Iowa.

You can see why Jackson is still dreaming big, even if the guys at Murphy’s are talking about the Cubs’ younger hitters. His speed and center-field skills will help him have a long career if he can hit the best pitching.

Jackson doesn’t want to become mechanical in his approach at the plate. He wants to trust his talent and the instincts that made him a first-round draft pick of the Cubs even when some scouts already were scared off by his lack of contact. He wants to do a better job with pitch recognition, chasing fewer breaking pitches at his ankles or in the dirt.

“Hitting is about keeping it simple,” Jackson said. “You find out what works for you and you try to become comfortable doing it.”

Nothing Jackson can do this spring will erase the memory left by the pile of strikeouts in August and September. He’s going to have to prove himself during the regular season, whenever another chance comes his way. He’s halfway there with the work he has done, but the next part isn’t as easy as Rizzo made it look.

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