For Austin Jackson and The Yankees, The Time Is Now

July 21, 2009   ·     ·   Jump to comments
Article Source: Bleacher Report - New York Yankees

Pitching aside, Baseball America’s 2009 Top 100 prospect list was dominated by catchers and centerfielders. While it is not unusual for there to be a large group of prospects at any one location on the diamond, it is when talking a large group at more than one “up the middle” or prime position.


What makes the list even more unprecedented is the appearance of five centerfielders within the top fifteen, all of whom have had a taste of the Major Leagues in 2009. Colby Rasmus (4), Cameron Maybin (6), Dexter Fowler (8), Andrew McCutchen (12), and Jordan Schafer (15) have all played regularly at some point, with varying degrees of success.


There are a number of other highly ranked centerfield prospects on the Top 100 list including Desmond Jennings (Rays), Gorkys Hernandez (Pirates), Drew Stubbs (Reds), and Gerardo Parra (Diamondbacks), who is currently seeing regular OF duty for the DBacks.


While each has received their fair share of accolades, these players all rank behind BA’s sixth ranked centerfielder, the Yankees’ Austin Jackson. The Yanks’ top overall prospect, the 22-year-old Jackson was drafted out of Ryan High School in Denton, TX in the eighth round in 2005.


At 6’1″, 185 pounds, Jackson is a top flight athlete who turned down a full ride scholarship to play basketball at Georgia Tech to sign with the Yankees.


Jackson has premium athletic skills, often being described in the football term as a “playmaker.” He is a natural CF, a glider with plus range and a right fielder’s arm.


Offensively, he has a tendency to be streaky at times, although as he gains experience he should become more consistent in his approach. While not yet displaying power, he has the strength and bat speed to reach fifteen homers a year in the major leagues.


The negative with Jackson is his strikeout rate, in general high, alarmingly so for a leadoff hitter. Heading into the 2009 season he had whiffed 399 times in 433 career minor league games.


The Yankees, understanding centerfield to be a positional weakness on the major league roster and feeling the need to challenge his development, Jackson was sent to the Arizona Fall League following the 2008 season.


The AFL has gained a reputation for being the premier development option for teams looking to give their top prospects top level instruction and competition at the same time. As a point of reference, a record number of players, at thirty seven, selected to the 2009 All Star game are AFL Alumni, including MVP Carl Crawford.


Already considered a better defensive centerfielder than perennial Yankee fan favorite Bernie Williams, Jackson headed to spring training with a legitimate shot of winning a spot in the opening day lineup.


A teammate of the Rays’ Jennings in Arizona, Jackson spent time in leftfield as well as center and stood out defensively as expected and made noticeable strides in his approach at the plate.


Instead of New York, Jackson found himself in Scranton’s opening day lineup. It would have been easy for him to sulk and pout, but on the contrary he started hitting and hasn’t stopped.


To date, Jackson leads the International League in hits (104), and is in the top ten in several offensive categories including on base percentage, runs, doubles, triples and total bases and stealing seventeen bases in eighteen attempts.


More important, however, is his strikeout rate, eighty one times in eighty six games. Still, on the high side for a top of the order hitter, the rate is improved when considering he has played the full year facing better pitching.


Since injuries started to impact the play of Yankees CF and leadoff hitter Johnny Damon towards the end of the 2007 season, both spots have been without an incumbent.


Over their last 250 games, the Yanks have employed no fewer than six leadoff hitters and five centerfielders. Subtracting the .310/.385/.457 from Derek Jeter, Yankee leadoff hitters have clipped at a .247/.326/.388 rate, hardly what you would expect from a pennant contending team.


The two main contributors to the lack of leadoff production are Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner, both of whom have failed in their attempts to win the job outright. It’s true both have performed well at times but make no mistake, each is lacking in the overall skill set to be a regular major league player.


Both are fortunate enough to play for a championship-caliber team, one that can hide a less skilled player in their lineup without them being hurt. The Red Sox, (Jed Lowrie, Jacoby Ellsbury) and Angels (Howie Kendrick) are two recent examples of teams who have reached the postseason while having players with limited tools in their everyday lineup.


Cabrera is also arbitration eligible this coming offseason. The Yankees avoided arbitration with him this past off-season, signing the outfielder to a one year, $1.4 million deal.


Melky is currently at .278/.338/.425, respectable numbers for a fourth outfielder but certainly not worth paying a million dollars a season for. The Yanks are at risk of again facing off with Cabrera at the arbitration table following the season, this time they could be on the hook for two million or more for 2010.


What to do?


The easy part of the equation is to promote Jackson, stick him in the leadoff spot, and let him play. Brett Gardner would assume the fourth OF role, with Cabrera being traded and thus having his anticipated arbitration raise become somebody else’s problem.


The Yanks know Cabrera won’t bring much in return, but at this point it doesn’t matter. He wouldn’t be the focal piece of any deal. Melky and another player or some cash may pry Taylor Teagarden from the Rangers or Huston Street from Colorado, two pieces the Yanks could use are catcher and a set-up man.


Bring up Jackson. Put him in the everyday lineup and let him play. He’ll be the starter in 2010 anyway, what’s the harm of him playing now? If the Yanks are OK with Cabrera and Gardner playing everyday in a pennant race there should be no concern with putting a better overall player in the lineup, right?


Jackson is the Yankees’ future in center, no reason the future can’t begin now.

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