MESA, Ariz. — Brett Jackson showed up to spring training Sunday, the same day Kris Bryant did.
But that might be where the similarities end for the two prospects these days.
Bryant, the Cubs’ first-round draft pick last June, is the flavor-of-the-month prospect in the team’s big plans, which should sound familiar to Jackson.
Jackson, 25, was that guy once. A first-round pick in 2009, he was a big-time prospect until a strikeout-filled 2012 that included a rough major-league debut and a 2013 season he says “just kind of fell apart.”
For all the talk of franchise-building through the farm system and homegrown cores, Jackson is on the outside looking in as he opens a crossroads season.
He expects better health in 2014 and better results by moving away from some of the mechanics changes he was asked to make the last two years.
“I feel back to being myself,” said Jackson, who wound up back at Class AA during a 2013 season hampered by shoulder, ankle and toe injuries. “I feel rejuvenated. I’ve never felt this good coming into spring training.
“Last year was a culmination of injury and just pure struggle baseball-wise. It was one of those snowball-effect years. It was a huge struggle and a huge challenge for me to overcome. I’m obviously not excited in the way it turned out, but I think those are the types of years that propel you forward.”
Last month during the Cubs Convention, team president Theo Epstein addressed the decision to detour from the usual check-all-boxes policy with prospects and promote Jackson and another first-rounder, Josh Vitters, in 2012 before they were ready.
“We were looking to make a very specific swing adjustment with him, and actually our manager [since-fired Dale Sveum] was the one who wanted him up here to work with him on his swing, because we weren’t getting it done in Triple-A,” Epstein told a roomful of fans. “In hindsight, that was a mistake.”
Sveum said it was a group decision with Jackson. Part of the thinking, he said, was the strikeout rate was so high already that it wouldn’t hurt to get a closer look at his swing while evaluating him in the big leagues.
“Sometimes, it boosts a kid with ability,” Sveum said, agreeing that, “yes, in hindsight, it wasn’t a good idea.”
Jackson said he’s looking back at all that went wrong — including 59 strikeouts in 120 at-bats and a .175 batting average — during that debut and the season that followed.
He’s looking for the “silver lining” and ignores the swing change that failed while taking a positive outlook into a new spring under a new manager and coaching staff.
“Everything was done with the best intentions,” he said. “Dale was always in my corner and believed in me. Unfortunately, and kind of ironically, along the way I kind of lost belief in myself in making those changes and was fighting my nature and my natural swing.”
Jackson said he has rediscovered that nature and is ready physically and mentally to succeed.
“I’m certainly grateful for Dale pushing me to get to the big leagues, and whether I had success or not in those two months I was up, I think that was a beneficial step in me moving forward as a person and a player,” he said. “It’s funny to say, but that and last year were probably the best things that could have happened to me in … sculpting me into the player I want to become.”
And even if a .210 minor-league season that finished in Class AA after a demotion wasn’t a thrill to endure, one result was “a little more motivation going into the offseason to not let injury or struggle happen again.”