- Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff Writer
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MESA, Ariz. -- Vitters and Jackson. Jackson and Vitters.
The two former first-round picks of the Chicago Cubs are back for another spring training, but no longer are they the heir apparents at third base and center field.
If you’ve forgotten about them (it’s Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters by the way), it’s probably because they’ve been passed by more recent top draft picks. On the same day they arrived early to spring training so did 2012's first-rounder, Albert Almora, and 2013's top pick, Kris Bryant. They play center field and third base as well.
“I don’t know if I'll be able to fill the void in everyone's head of me because it's obviously pretty big,” Vitters said on Sunday morning. “But I think I can rejuvenate my career.”
Vitters was the third overall pick in 2007, but few things have gone right for him while moving up the minor league ladder. He’s only had 109 plate appearances in the major leagues as injuries and struggles have derailed him. A sudden influx of third basemen in the Cubs system forced Vitters to the outfield.
“I got the call this winter that they wanted me to go out there so I’m just trying to get into the best shape I can and take as many fly balls as possible,” he said.
As for Jackson, he famously went through a swing change after striking out in almost half (59) of his 120 major league at-bats back in 2012. He was even demoted to Double-A last season while fighting injuries.
“I wasn’t having fun last year,” Jackson said. “I was hurt and struggling. I rediscovered that fun a little bit this offseason.
“The changes had all the right intentions and all the right cues for me to become a better player. However, I was fighting my nature and fighting who I was as a natural athlete. I think that made my time at the plate a struggle.”
Both players worked on the mental aspects of the game as the pressure built upon them over the years. And both went back to the drawing board this offseason in hopes of finding whatever they were lacking.
“I worked with the Cubs' sports psychologist,” Vitters said. “I worked on my mental mindset to get to relax more when I’m playing so I’m not jittery. I learned how to find peace within myself.”
Jackson found a renewed love of the game in the form of working with little leaguers this winter.
“It’s a really amazing perspective to run into and see in front of your own eyes,” he explained. “I want to get back to that. I want to get back to playing for fun.”
Are they both searching for answers they may not find? The odds are against them making the Cubs out of spring training but right now they have no choice but to keep working and maybe things come together -- if not here then somewhere else.
“Can’t go backwards in sports,” Jackson said. “If you try to, it usually doesn’t work out.”
Jackson’s work included watching video of successful hitters while trying to find his natural swing again. The swing that made him the 31st pick in the 2009 draft.
“The last couple of years have been a search for finding myself at the plate,” he said.
Vitters knows draft status means little now.
“Even if you’re on top you have to stay one step ahead,” he said. “Even a guy like (Anthony) Rizzo who’s established is one of the harder workers."
Jackson and Vitters.
Right now their names are the most recent of highly touted prospects that haven't materialized through the years for the Cubs. At the most recent Cubs convention Team President Theo Epstein even took some blame for bringing the two prospects up to the majors before they were ready.
That’s little consolation to them as they’ve seen others pass them up on the depth chart.
Their failures are a reminder why an annual contender has never been built in Chicago. And it’s the reason many doubt the Cubs can turn things around through their current rebuilding plan. After all, what happens if Almora and Bryant are busts? There’s been too many over the years not to consider it.
But neither of these players is giving up -- Vitters actually hit .295 with an on-base percentage of .380 in limited action at Triple-A Iowa last year. Linked by failure, they hope to turn things around as spring always breeds hope. They’re even living together in Arizona just as they did two years ago.
“We’re working on getting our mojo back this year,” Vitters stated. “We’re headed in the right direction.”
2dJohn Jackson, Special to ESPN.com