2006 Hitter of the Year

A week ago Saturday, the Cubs presented two of its pitchers, Rich Hill and Donald Veal, with the organization's annual awards for Player of the Year. While none were more deserving than the two recipients, a position player wasn't formally recognized with one of the honors, unlike years past.

The recognition for Player(s) of the Year is decided each September by Cubs Farm Director Oneri Fleita with input from the organization's various coaches, coordinators and instructors. (The Cubs first started the process in 2004.)

But the decision to hand out this year's honors to two pitchers as opposed to one pitcher and one position prospect wasn't meant to slight any of the Cubs' young hitters who put together quality seasons in their own right.

Fleita simply felt the awards shouldn't exclude any noteworthy performance based solely on position. The decision to name the two players was as challenging as ever this year.

"We haven't even thought about it. If you want that job, you're more than welcome to it," Fleita said not long before the awards were announced.

Fleita jested, but we'll nonetheless take him up on the offer – sort of.

When the minor league season began back in April as Cubs prospects were packing their bags and ever-popular iPod's for the designated 2006 affiliate of the organization's choice, Jake Fox had something to prove.

The catcher and 2003 third-round draft pick from the University of Michigan needed to prove he didn't belong in A-ball any longer. He also wanted to quiet his critics with regards to his defense behind the plate, which is routinely heralded as the biggest liability in Fox's game.

The first task was met with relative ease. Fox batted .313 in 66 games with Daytona and saw an unscripted spike in home runs during his third full professional season. He earned a promotion to Double-A West Tenn in mid-June that many felt was overdue.

All in all, the 24-year-old hit .294 between Daytona and West Tenn and led the Cubs' farm system with 86 RBIs. His career-high 21 homers placed six behind Michael Restovich's 27 round-trippers at Triple-A Iowa, and one behind the 22 homers clubbed by both Micah Hoffpauir and Scott Moore.

"He had a great year from start to finish," Fleita said of Fox. "He put up great offensive numbers and showed a lot of power. He hit for extra bases and now he's got a chance to go to the Fall League, and deservingly so."

Fox recorded 54 extra-base hits between the Florida State and Southern League's, and left Daytona with a .383 on-base percentage and .957 OPS.

When he got to West Tenn, Fox overcame some early struggles at the plate and rebounded to hit .269 with the dearly departed former Cubs affiliate, including .337 (29-for-86) in 24 games in August.

"You do what you need to do," Fox said of his 2006 season. "You want to keep moving up and doing what you can to get [to the majors]. When the dust settles, you realize you put together some pretty good numbers."

Modest and selfless as ever, Fox attributed his career-high for RBIs to those getting on base in front of him.

"You can't drive anybody in unless they're on base," he bargained. "This year, I felt there were a lot of guys in front of me and I would give as much credit to them as I would myself."

West Tenn hitting coach Tom Beyers received Fox from Daytona midway through the season and believes the promotion to Double-A was a necessity.

"It was good that he got up here," Beyers said. "He found out some different areas in his game that he needs to work on. He didn't quite have the numbers that he had in Daytona, but coming up here, I think it was great for him to experience this level."

One of the areas where Fox still needs work is on defense. Fox said in August that even in big league camp this past spring, he felt that many of the Cubs' coaches already had a preconceived notion of how he played defensively.

Jake Fox had his finest season to date in 2006.

Between Daytona and West Tenn, Fox committed eight errors and had 22 passed balls. He posted fielding percentages of .986 and .992 with the two clubs, respectively. He threw out 30 percent of opposing runners.

"I felt like I had a pretty good year defensively," he said. "There were some times where I was up and down. Just like at the plate, you go through some slumps. My dad and I were looking over my defensive statistics the other day and probably over half of the passed balls I had came during 10 percent of the games."

Fox cites New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada as a key motivator in coping with the pressures of defense.

"I was watching the Yankees and I saw Posada have just a terrible game," Fox recalled. "It put things into perspective, because some times I can be a little hard on myself in games when I don't play very well. Then you see guys on TV that have bad games and you realize that those guys have games just like you do."

Fox knows in spite of his quality hitting that offense is only half the battle. And he believes he is improving behind the plate.

"Overall, I think it was an improvement from last year. I had my down times but that's part of the development: learning how to minimize those down times and have more of a consistent approach every day."

As mentioned, Fox's next journey will take him back to where his season always starts: Arizona. He'll be one of the seven Cubs prospects on hand in the annual Arizona Fall League beginning Oct. 10. It will be Fox's second trip to the AFL after previously being stationed there in 2004.

"I think the good thing about going to the Arizona Fall League this year is that I'll be an everyday player," Fox said. "When I was there a couple of years ago, I was sort of on the Taxi Squad and only played every fifth day, so there was a lot of downtime where I was just working on my own."

Fox will get some looks in the outfield, just as he did for manager Pat Listach's West Tenn club this past season and likely at first base as well.

Fox picked up a handful of starts in the outfield toward the end of the season at West Tenn, and Listach (who will manage Fox's AFL team, the Mesa Solar Sox) said that Fox would be getting some starts in the outfield because, "He's got to get his at-bats."

Fox only welcomes a new position or two.

"I'm pretty excited about it. It always helps to play another position," the Indiana native said. "I played some outfield late in the season. I got a couple of starts in left and probably three or four in right. It's not too bad. The first two games, you're obviously going to feel like a fish out of water, but I actually felt pretty comfortable out there toward the end.

"The outfield is not that difficult," he added. "You have to adjust to things like playing the ball off the wall. For the most part, I adjusted and felt like I was pretty comfortable out there."

Fox will still make the majority of his starts behind the plate in 2007.

"It's still my primary position," he said. "But those days where you can't catch every day, like a five-game series [at West Tenn], maybe in one or two of those games I'll find another position where I can still be in the lineup and hit. Catching really takes a toll on the body."

Beyers noted that one of the reasons why the Jaxx coaches wanted to get Fox some playing time in the outfield was based loosely on the structure of the Southern League, which housed eight National League teams as opposed to just two from the American League.

A third American League team (Seattle) is expected to join the league next season, Southern League President Don Mincher said on Thursday.

"The days that he doesn't catch, he can still play," Beyers said. "We had that happen (at first base) with Brandon Sing and Brian Dopirak here at the same time. One of those guys had to sit, so it's frustrating here trying to get these hitters their at-bats.

"With certain players, you want to increase their value and make sure we hit every area where we can utilize them the best," Beyers said. "It's tough on the developmental side of things when you're trying to develop that extra bat and you have eight National League teams."

Inside The Ivy is pleased to name Jake Fox our Minor League Hitter of the Year for 2006, and congratulate him on a fine season.

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