[image title="austin_jackson_s" size="full" id="9315" align="center" ]You can bet that the Yankees have Austin Jackson on their mind when making decisions on Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and their potential replacements this off season. Austin Jackson has been a top Yankee prospect for at least three years now, and is on the verge of hitting the major leagues.
Of course, the two big questions for any prospect are: How good will he be, and when will be hit the majors?
How good is Austin Jackson?
There is a pretty big range of opinion on how good Austin Jackson could potentially be. Some see him as an above-average centerfielder, which plenty of flaws but enough natural athleticism to keep him in the lineup every day. Think about Shane Victorino. Some think that Jackson has the power potential to be similar to Curtis Granderson.
I believe that Jackson is much more of a Victorino than a Granderson. Take a look at his stat line since the second half of 2007:
He hasn’t shown a lot of power before or after his 2007 half-season breakout. In fact, he has gradually become more a singles hitter as he has climbed the minor league ladder. This trend is a little bit disturbing, though by no means irreversible.
Austin Jackson has a problem: he strikes out too much. In a full season of play, Jackson will probably strike out around 140 times. This is where a lot of the Granderson comparisons come from. Unfortunately, Jackson hasn’t shown Granderson’s power hitting ability. He swings to the opposite field, much like Derek Jeter does, so his power ceiling is probably pretty low. On the other hand, it allows him to hit .300 despite the high strikeout rate.
I don’t think that we can expect Jackson to develop all that much power, though it is a possibility. It is more likely that Jackson settles into the 10-15 home runs per year range, with a decent number of doubles and triples. He’ll steal 20-30 bases too.
On defense, Jackson gets a bad rep. He is commonly referred to as a left field / center field candidate, as if he doesn’t have the range to handle center. Besides a handful of games in 2009 where he let Ramiro Pena learn the position, the Yankees have always used Jackson as a center fielder. While writers have complained about his poor routes to balls, they also always mentioned that his natural speed makes up for it. Austin Jackson is a superb athlete, and is a center fielder.
Jackson has one little-known trait that is important. He has an impeccable minor league health record. He has barely missed a game since his debut five years ago. Most minor league players miss time with minor issues, because teams are generally pretty conservative with minor league injuries. Jackson hasn’t raised a single warning flag for the Yankees. His 4.5 seasons in the minors seem longer because of this.
How soon will he be ready?
Most clubs would probably pencil Austin Jackson for a strong audition in spring training. The Yankees probably won’t be satisfied with a rookie as their Plan A. I’d be shocked to see him start the season in the majors, barring a spring training injury.
But honestly, why not? Melky Cabrera has some trade value, and is about to get a healthy raise. Cabrera is, at best, an average center fielder. Austin Jackson will be a better defender, and likely a better hitter. Brett Gardner is basically the same player, value-wise, as Cabrera. If I were Brian Cashman, I would explore a trade of Melky Cabrera for a back-end starting pitcher.
Jackson probably has little to learn in Triple-A. A full season is a long time, and by no means did he struggle while there. He might expect a little bit of improvement over time, but that improvement could also happen in the majors. There’s a pretty good chance that he’ll be better than either Melky or Gardner in 2010.
I guess my argument is basically this: right now, Melky is Plan A. Gardner is Plan B. Jackson is Plan C. Why not make Gardner Plan A and Jackson Plan B? Do we really need that much extra depth?
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