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Almost Ripe: Austin Jackson Ready to Run?
Ethan Wagner,

For years, Yankee fans eagerly anticipated Austin Jackson’s arrival in the big leagues. They were told Jackson, a gifted athlete with the ability to hit for average as well as a bit of power, would patrol centerfield at Yankee Stadium for years to come.

Now he is primed to arrive in the majors not with the Yankees, but instead with the Detroit Tigers, thanks to this off-season’s Curtis Granderson trade. Suddenly, we’re hearing about how Jackson was overhyped; just the latest New York prospect whose skills don’t match the name recognition he enjoys among casual fans. Yet the Tigers, by trading one of their star players, have clearly placed a large wager against this proposition.

So who is right here, and what can fantasy players expect from Jackson this year and beyond?

Jackson's Toolbox

As a 22-year-old, Jackson spent all of 2009 at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre where he produced a line of 67-4-65-24-.300 (R-HR-RBI-SB-AVG). This output was more or less in line with Jackson’s typical minor league season to date, though perhaps on the lighter side in terms of power.

What is striking, and important to point out, is that at 22-years-old, Jackson was young for the league and he more than held his own. Consider, for instance, that newly drafted college seniors are the same age, yet often struggle to approach these numbers at Single-A and Double-A.

In terms of his actual production, there are three primary positive signs to note. The first is his .300 batting average last year, which, combined with his overall .288 mark in the minors, creates confidence in Jackson’s pure hitting talent. One or two strong years of above-average batting can be explained away as owing, at least in part, to a degree of good fortune. But a track record such as Jackson’s makes one believe his talent is a repeatable skill.

The second encouraging sign is that Jackson is capable of taking a walk. He’s not a premier on-base, 100 walks per year guy, but his OBPs (even accounting for good batting averages) have typically been fine, suggesting he could fit at the top of the lineup where he’d be more apt to score runs.

The final takeaway that creates a sense of optimism about Jackson’s fantasy value is his speed. In five minor league seasons, Jackson has compiled 124 steals, and speed usually translates to the majors better than any other skill. Importantly, he displays a knack for making good decisions on the base paths as well, exemplified by his 24 steals in 28 attempts in 2009. He’s not an all-world burner, but he is fast and smart enough to be an asset in the stolen base category.

What Could Hold Him Back

Despite these tools, however, some significant data points raise caution flags. Strikeouts are a significant issue for Jackson. Last year he struck out in nearly one-quarter of his at-bats, and this wasn’t even a career high in his minor league career. If minor league pitchers had such success exploiting holes in Jackson’s swing, imagine how big leaguers will fare. And if he can’t put the ball in play regularly, Jackson’s ability to hit for average stands to suffer.

Scouts have suggested Jackson would develop power as he progressed, but it would be imprudent to expect meaningful power production from Jackson this season. A worrisome trend has emerged: Jackson’s ISO and bulk HR totals have fallen over the past three seasons, as if he’s losing rather than gaining the ability to hit for power.

Now, if you’ll remember, it is significant that he’s been young for his level each step of the way, but in 2010 he will be once again young for where he is, while also facing top-level competition. Even those who believe in him developing power surely aren’t expecting this to be the year.

Unfortunately for Jackson, his home stadium is unlikely to do him any favors. Last season, Comerica was actually a slight hitters’ park, but it suppressed home runs, hits, and doubles. Perhaps, however, with his good speed Jackson can take advantage of Comerica’s tendency to inflate triples.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball

So let’s put this all together into an informed projection. In the short-term, Jackson’s negative indicators overwhelm. Heading to the majors with swing-and-miss issues is a recipe for frustration and struggle. Look for Jackson to hit for less average than to which he is accustomed, complemented by little power, but he may be good for something on the order of 20 steals by virtue of being the Tigers’ only good option in CF. I expect they’ll stick with him through any difficulties and the playing time should allow him to at worst fall into some SBs.

For those of us in keeper leagues, however, the outlook is sunnier. Players who are hurried along might struggle to float each year, but they’re usually hurried because they have the talent to learn to swim (if you follow the analogy). A year of at-bats against top-tier pitching may be extremely instructive for Jackson; if he can hold his own, his talent and athleticism make him a candidate for improvement in all facets in coming seasons.

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