Fox gets the call from Cubs

No minor league player has created more buzz with his statistical performance this season than Cubs first baseman Jake Fox, who just got the call from the Cubs on Tuesday.

Fox, who will turn 27 in July, has hit an astounding .423 in Triple-A this season, with 17 homers, 50 RBIs and 32 extra-base hits in 149 at-bats, leading the minor leagues in batting average, RBIs and extra-base hits, among other categories. He also had a 17-game hitting streak. Sure, he had a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .443, which has inflated his batting average, but the power has been legit.

And it's not as if this offensive outburst has come out of nowhere; Fox has had some good seasons in recent years, and pretty much has hit since he was drafted in the third round in 2003. He hit .284 with 18 homers in 359 at-bats in Double-A back in 2007 to earn himself 14 big-league at-bats with the Cubs, with whom he hit two doubles.

Last year, Fox struggled out of the gate at Triple-A, hitting .222 with 6 homers in 117 at-bats before being sent down to Double-A in June, where he hit .307 with 25 homers in 388 at-bats and led the Southern League with a .580 slugging percentage. However, a player his age should have been dominating that level.

This year, Fox finally appears to have found that balance point of being selectively aggressive, and it has made all the difference. Finding that middle ground of being patient enough to wait for something you can drive, instead of something you can merely make contact with, can be elusive. Fox used to be much more of a free-swinger who tried to jerk every ball out of the ballpark despite a relatively short, smooth stroke and good bat speed. The key is his plate discipline has been much better this season. He has been taking pitches, letting some non-drivable ones go by and working himself into better hitter's counts. In particular, his ability to lay off offspeed stuff low and away has improved. He also has stopped trying to pull everything; he's doing a better job of hitting the ball where it's pitched and going to all fields.

And he's done all this despite getting mixed signals from the organization. He told the Des Moines Register that when he was demoted to Double-A last June, his Triple-A manager Pat Listach told him he needed to work on being more patient, yet Cubs manager Lou Piniella told him something different this spring. "'Son, I didn't bring you up here to big-league camp to watch pitches,'" Fox said Piniella told him. "He said he wanted me swinging the bat."

Fox has put up phenomenal numbers at Triple-A this year and given fantasy owners visions of another Nelson Cruz, who at 27 parlayed a career year at Triple-A into a starting job in the big leagues late last season. But where does he fit with the Cubs?

The answer comes down to one of the other factors in the baseball equation -- defense. To put it kindly, Fox's best position is the batter's box. For the first four seasons of his professional career, Fox was a catcher, albeit not a very good one, and always behind Geovany Soto on the depth chart. In the 2007 season, the Cubs moved Fox to first base, and he also played the corner outfield spots occasionally. This year in the minors, he also has played in a couple of games behind the plate again and one game at third base, but the bottom line is that his glove is well below average pretty much everywhere he plays.

Which creates a problem. Will he get everyday playing time for the Cubs? We don't see it happening, which means this call-up might be little more than a cup of coffee or just a bench role until some key players, especially Aramis Ramirez, get healthy.

His own general manager, Jim Hendry, has stated in the past that he is surprised American League clubs have not pursued Fox as a DH. Though the Cubs could use some offense right now, there's just no room for him to get everyday playing time because his glove just doesn't play passably enough anywhere. "We've talked about Jake. We know he's swinging the bat really well," Piniella told the Chicago Sun-Times last week. "But where do you put him? If he could play third base, that would be an obvious place to put him. I know we're having trouble scoring runs, but if we give up [more] runs, that makes it even more difficult."

Fox has played in just five games at third base over his professional career, and his performance there during the spring and in batting practice sessions have convinced the club he can't handle the hot corner with regularity. "He's swinging the bat as well as anybody in professional baseball," GM Jim Hendry also told the Sun-Times. "But if there's not a place for him, you can't do much about it."

Compounding Fox's problems trying to get big-league playing time is the presence of Micah Hoffpauir on the Cubs' roster. Hoffpauir had a huge year at Triple-A last season himself, hitting .362 with 25 homers and 100 RBIs in only 71 games last year, and has acquitted himself well when he has gotten a chance to play in the majors. The Cubs haven't had much room for him, either.

Look for the Cubs to slot in Fox in the corner outfield spots or maybe at third base when they can. Ideally, he'd be a first baseman, but that is occupied by Derrek Lee, and then Hoffpauir. And unfortunately, he doesn't have the defense to stick in the outfield or at third base.

I suppose he could hit well enough out of the gate to keep an everyday spot. In fact, he pretty much has to; he can't afford to slump. But again, Hoffpauir profiles very similarly, and he'd be above Fox right now in the pecking order.

NL-only owners might as well take a chance on Fox and pick him up, hoping he gets regular playing time and his bat stays hot in the majors. But mixed leaguers can avoid him for now. Those owners more or less need everyday at-bats, and that can't be guaranteed from Fox. Plus, he might not be up for long.

Bud Norris, SP, Astros: Norris, a 24-year-old who was drafted in the sixth round in 2006, put himself on my radar screen with a dazzling effort as a reliever in the 2008 Arizona Fall League, showing a three-pitch mix that one front-office NL executive told me "was the best stuff I've seen from a reliever at the AFL in the last five years."

Norris, a 6-foot right-hander whose stocky build has him being compared to Ben Sheets, has tree trunks for legs and good arm action. He has been a starter virtually his entire pro career, including 19 outings at Double-A last year, where he posted a 4.05 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 80 innings even though he missed two months of the season because of an elbow injury. But working in relief in the AFL, he dialed up his fastball to 95-97 mph, and also showed a high-80s slider with short, late break and a mid-80s changeup that flashed plus at times, dropping off the table.

He's working as a starter at Triple-A Round Rock this season, and has posted a 2.55 ERA in nine starts, with 54 strikeouts in 53 innings, although he also has walked 29 batters. I took a trip to Sacramento last week to watch him against the A's farm club, eager to see what he looked like when he wasn't working in one-inning stints.

As a starter, Norris' fastball has been dialed down to 91-94 mph, and he can work it on both sides of the plate. Though he still had that short strike-zone bite on his 85-88 mph slider, he had trouble throwing it for strikes. He again flashed good changeups in the 81-84 mph range, but he loses the feel for it at times and leaves it up.

Norris is aggressive but tends to rush his delivery. He needs to repeat it better, as his lack of command at this juncture of his career is exposed more as a starter. He also needs to throw more strikes, as he has been running up his pitch counts early in games. However, the command is a bigger concern than the control at this point. He needs more "pitchability" and feel.

The bottom line is I still like Norris more as a potential shutdown closer in the ninth than as a starter, although he certainly has gotten results in the starting rotation thus far. Norris has nasty stuff, with great movement on his secondary pitches, but his command of them still has a ways to go. His live arm is certainly one to watch.

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