Baseball America finished their league top 20 series today, wrapping up with the Triple-A International League. Austin Jackson was the only Yankee prospect to make the list, ranking 7th overall. Only Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates placed higher among outfielders. The subscriber only scouting report called Jackson “most exciting player to spend the full season in the IL,” noting that he drew comparisons to Torii Hunter, albeit with less power. I’d take that in a heartbeat.
With Brett Gardner shelved until at least mid-August with a broken thumb, the Yankees will need another outfielder. They do have three players on the active roster — Cody Ransom, Eric Hinske, and Hideki Matsui — to spell their three starters, but each is questionable enough defensively to merit an alternative solution. Foremost among the concerns is that it would force Johnny Damon or Nick Swisher into center field to give Melky Cabrera a rest, an option the Yankees don’t seem comfortable with, and rightly so. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many alternatives to back up Melky in center.
Every mildly curious Yankees fan has pondered the option of promoting Austin Jackson from AAA Scranton to temporarily fill in. He’s one of the Yankees most promising prospects, and he’s one of the few players in the system who could play center field in the majors. It’s understandable that fans would want to see him get a shot in the majors, especially considering his successful season so far: .311/.375/.429 with 17 steals in 19 attempts.
The rules also favor the Yankees. By adding Jackson to the 40-man roster the Yankees will start his service time clock, but that’s of little concern at this point in the season. The more pressing concern is the use of a minor league option. There wouldn’t seem to be room on the roster for Jackson once Gardner returns, so they would have to burn an option by returning him to Scranton. But Gardner’s best case return time is 25 days, which would be August 19. Rosters expand on September 1, so if the Yankees optioned Jackson then he’d be in the minors for fewer than 20 days. Thus, the option would not be used.
(The Yankees did this with Brian Bruney in 2007, though they recalled him before rosters expanded. He went down on August 7 when Joba came up, and was recalled a bit later in the month. But because he wasn’t in the minors for 20 days the Yankees did not burn an option.)
The problem with adding Jackson is that they’d have to play him nearly every day. Is that something they should be committed to at this point? There is a little over two months left in the season and the AL East is anything but decided. Committing to Jackson might mean putting a black hole in the nine spot regularly. Since they’ll be playing against other American League teams, they need not hamper themselves with a pitcher’s spot — and worse on days that Jose Molina plays.
Not playing Jackson would be a complete waste. He’d be better off getting regular at bats in Scranton, and the team wouldn’t be that much better with him in reserve. They could always option him if the experiment failed, but then they would not only possibly trigger an option year, depending on when they pull the plug, but would also have to clear another 40-man spot to add a replacement outfielder. Those are considerably costs, and perhaps ones the Yankees should not be willing to risk.
There are legitimate concerns about Jackson’s ability to handle major league pitching right now. Two major points of debate over Jackson are his strikeouts and his batting average on balls in play. Of the former, he has 89 strikeouts in 347 at bats this season. How will he handle major league pitchers if AAA pitchers set him down frequently via the swing and miss? Of the latter, his BABIP is .407, which he certainly will not be able to replicate at the big league level. That could cause a massive drop-off in all of his numbers.
Jackson has also struggled lately, as he’s mired in a .167/.244/.194 slump over the past 14 days (not counting Sunday’s 0 for 3 performance). The Yankees did promote Jackson back in 2007 while he was hitting just .260/.336/.374 in Charleston, and he responded by tearing the Florida State League to shreds in the second half, hitting .345/.398/.556 over the final 67 games. But the Yankees can’t expect that to happen again. The expectations for immediate performance, given Jackson’s recent struggles, his general strikeout tendencies, and his high BABIP, would have to be rather low.
Few doubt Austin Jackson’s talent and potential to be a solid major leaguer in the future. He’s handled each promotion since 2007 relatively well, and has continued to perform over the course of the 2009 season. The Yankees might be attracted by the prospect of adding him to their outfield, but there is enough working against the move that they shouldn’t make it at this point. This could mean having to see Johnny Damon in center field once or twice over the next 30 or so days while Melky mans the position full-time. Those costs would seem to be less than those of promoting Austin Jackson and having the experiment fail.
What should the Yankees do, then? There are a few internal options, though few could play a passable center field. It looks like John Rodriguez, Shelley Duncan, Ramiro Pena, or a trade for a player who can man center. In any case, I wouldn’t bet on it being Austin Jackson. As much as I’d love to see the kid in the Bronx, it doesn’t seem like the right move for the Yankees right now.
Austin Jackson entered the 2009 season as the top prospect in the Yankees system and deservedly so. After all, he had just hit .285-.354-.419 with 19 steals as a 21-yr old in the pitcher friendly Eastern League, playing half his games in pitcher friendly Waterfront Park in Trenton. His supreme athleticism and superb defense in centerfield rounded out an exciting all around package.
Just about three months into the season, Jackson is again putting up stellar numbers (.324-.389-.452, 15 SB) and running down balls from gap to gap in the outfield. However, Jackson’s detractors point to his crazy high .424 batting average on balls in play, his high strikeout rate, and his mediocre power output and say his triple-slash line is luck inflated. That certainly may be true, but thanks to the beauty of the internet we can take a deeper look and find out.
Since there are a few graphs included in this post, I’m going to add a jump right here so the front page doesn’t slow down. Make sure to click through though.
Tyler Kepner at the Bats blog profiled Austin Jackson, the Yanks’ top prospect coming into the year. He’s got some great quotes from Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Butch Wynegar about how right now they’re just working to iron out Jackson’s swing mechanics and trying to develop a consistent approach at the plate. The comparison they threw out there was Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, not for Jackson’s ultimate ceiling, but for the way he went from a rookie with and a great approach zero homers in 583 plate appearances to a 30+ homeruns hitter two years later. Make sure you check it out, great stuff.
There was quite a bit of speculation going on after we learned that Kevin Russo and Austin Jackson were both lifted from Triple-A Scranton’s game in the third inning this afternoon, but Chad Jennings says that both players were lifted due to injury. Jackson was hit by a pitch on the elbow and is listed as day-to-day, while Russo is out with an unspecified injury. Hopefully neither is serious.
I’m thinking that Juan Miranda will get the call to replace Nady, serving as the backup first baseman and primary pinch hitter. They don’t need to call up another outfielder, they already have four on their roster, all of whom can play center at least adequately. In an emergency you could run Matsui or even Cody Ransom out to a corner spot. Plus no 40-man move would be required.
USA Today ran an article today that basically amounts to 100 young players you need to know for 2009. David Price predictably topped the list, and was followed by Travis Snider of the Jays and Chris Davis of the Rangers. Three Yankees made the list:
35. Brett Gardner, OF, Yankees: Right now, Gardner is stuck in a five-man logjam in the Yankees outfield. Things could clear up for him (a trade of Xavier Nady or Nick Swisher, further club dissatisfaction with Melky Cabrera) or get more crowded (Jorge Posada forced to DH, pushing Hideki Matsui into the outfield mix). Gardner, 25, gives the Yankees a needed burst of speed (he stole 13 bases in 14 tries) and does the little things well, but will need to hit more — maybe a lot more — to get playing time.
84. Austin Jackson, OF, Yankees: The weak link in the Yankees’ lineup, at least offensively, is center field, where either Brett Gardner or Melky Cabrera is likely to be on opening day. By some point later in the season, it’s not an unrealistic scenario that Jackson, 22, could be there. He is speedy with the ability to hit for average like Gardner but has more power. Cabrera can do similar things as Jackson offensively but slumped terribly at the plate last year. If Cabrera slumps again, Jackson will be a call away in Class AAA.
97. David Robertson, RHP, Yankees: Robertson, 23, emerged as a steady big-league bullpen option, then hit the wall with an 8.18 August ERA and was sent back to Class AAA. He throws hard enough to be a factor again this season, if not immediately.
These lists are very tough to put together, because you’re not ranking guys based on who’s the best player or prospect, you’re ranking them based on who will have the biggest impact in the big leagues this year. That said, David Murphy (#11) over Colby Rasmus (#12) is laughable.
Couple other quick comments: Clayton Richard (#17) is way too high, Tommy Hanson too low (#34), and JA Happ (#95) extremely too low. I’d have Happ in the top 25, ditto Hanson. I love me some Jason Motte too (#25), dude had 126 strikeouts in 76.2 IP between Triple-A and the bigs last year. And I’m sorry, if you’re going to include guys like Jess Todd, (#44) Adam Miller (#45), Scott Elbert (#50), and Phillippe Aumont (#72), then you have to include Mark Melancon. That’s just crazy.
Anywho, there’s your open thread for the night. The Nets are in D.C., and the Knicks are getting visit from LeBron. Anything goes, just be nice.
Photo Credit: Al Tielemans, SI
The fine folks at milb.com have started to release their list of the top 50 prospects in the game. As the title says, Austin Jackson came in at number 27, right alongside some big names like Tommy Hanson, Lars Anderson and Eric Hosmer. Jesus Montero was ranked #40, between Jeremy Hellickson and Adam Miller. No other Yanks’ farmhands are expected to the make the list, which be fully released over the rest of the week.