Name: Austin Jackson
DOB: February 1, 1987
Hitting just .258 with four home runs and 152 strikeouts in his first full season with the Charleston Riverdogs in 2006, and struggling to correct some mechanical flaws in his swing, the Yankees sent him back to the South Atlantic League for some more seasoning last year.
"I think the major thing I saw with him was mechanically," said Torre Tyson, Jackson's hitting coach in 2006 and manager in Charleston last season. "Even though he hit like .330 the first month of his first season here, it was just from his athleticism. It wasn't that mechanically he was solid.
"He was just getting away with some athletic movements and some great hands, and getting some bloops in. Then through last season we really saw sound development mechanically and he was starting to have a better chance. By the last month, you could really see him starting to grasp the information. Then you saw him go through the Instructional camp and then in Spring Training you could see some strides."
Even though Jackson hit just .260 in his second tour of duty with the Riverdogs in 2007, Tyson believes his further exposure to South Atlantic League pitching was invaluable.
"When he got here this year, even though his numbers weren't outstanding, you could just see the approach in every at-bat, the consistency was there where it wasn't last year," Tyson added. "You know the great thing about him being in this league for two years, everybody knew him this year. They kind of knew he was susceptible to some breaking balls, so he saw a ton of those.
"I think just the repetition and the experience of seeing those balls, and recognizing them, that's what made him a better hitter. He had 300 or so at-bats here this year and most of them [pitches] were breaking balls. He became a very good breaking ball hitter as a result.
"I think now that he has moved up, the guys are around the zone more with their pitches. Yeah the stuff's better, but they are around the zone more, and that's where he excels with his athletic ability and now that he has a little base of his mechanics. I think that's why he's succeeding. This league enabled him to see an ample supply of offspeed pitches, which is exactly what he needed."
He went on to hit .345 with the Tampa Yankees, including ten home runs in just 258 at-bats after connecting on just seven home runs in his previous 770 career at-bats, and his offensive success translated into better defensive play in the outfield.
"I think I finally started to figure it out a little bit at the plate and defensively," Jackson admitted. "Something clicked and I felt I needed to stay with it in order to be successful, and that's what I did.
"I think just being more focused - not thinking too much and not trying to do too much, just focusing on what I was doing at the plate or in the outfield and just going through it in my mind before it happened, being able to react to the ball more - helped slow the game down for me."
Working so hard on his hitting mechanics prior to entering the Florida State League - including removing a drift in his swing that helped improve his balance during his swing path - allowed him to think less about his mechanics and it became second-nature for him by the time he joined the Tampa Yankees.
"It just became more natural for me," he revealed. "I felt more relaxed because I felt like I knew what I was doing and I felt that the swing I was working on in the cages was going to translate into the game, that's all I could do. If I struck out or hit a home run, or if I popped up or whatever, I was using those same techniques that I had been practicing in the cage."
Responding well to his hitting coach's more simplistic approach of 'see the ball, hit the ball' and worrying less about what to do in each plate appearance, and more to the point of not over-thinking from at-bat to at-bat, increased Jackson's comfort level.
"He's being consistent and he's confident," said then Tampa hitting coach and current Yankees hitting coordinator James Rowson, "and that's what you love to see in a young player like him. He's confident and he knows he can go up there every time and drive the ball in his mind.
"It doesn't matter if he's ten for his last ten or zero for his last ten, in that next at-bat he's going to take it and give you a good at-bat, that's what great in watching him. He's doing things real easy and real slow, and his tempo is good. I don't worry about him."
He didn't just slow down the game at the plate however. A toolsy outfielder who would succumb to mental lapses in the outfield through his first two professional seasons, Jackson learned to employ the same easy approach in the field.
"I think defensively it was just focusing more," he said of his adjustments. "I know a lot of times I made mental errors in the outfield as far as a ground ball would be hit to me and a runner would be on second base, and I'd be so concentrated on throwing him out rather than fielding the ball first. I would fumble with the ball and he would score anyway.
"I also trimmed down a little bit. I felt a lot quicker out there when I trimmed down a little bit. Last year in Spring Training I was 206 pounds and I trimmed down to 195, and I felt quicker towards the end of the season and in Hawaii. I think those are two things that helped me out defensively."
Finally seeing his entire game come together and becoming a more solid overall player, he has been garnering a lot more attention as one of the game's top prospects and has even had his name bandied about in trade discussions this offseason.
"It let me know how they feel about me," Jackson said of the Johan Santata trade rumors. "Sometimes with the Yankees you're not too sure, but just from what I've heard and with the things I've read, that I was one of the untouchable players, that has to be a good feeling that they're thinking about you like that and that they've got plans for you in the future. It was definitely a good feeling knowing that I didn't get traded in that deal."
Prepared to join teammate Jose Tabata as future outfielders with the Yankees someday, Jackson has no doubt he is now one of the top prospects in the game.
"I definitely think of myself as a top prospect as every player in the game should," he confidently told us. "You should think, not in a cocky way but in a confident way, that you're better than the next guy.
"If you're not thinking that way you're allowing him to have the edge over you. No matter how much bigger, stronger, or faster the next guy is, you're always going to believe you're going to go out there and prove to people you're better than him, that's how I feel."
Ready to open some more eyes in his first big league Spring Training camp after coming off of what many would deem a breakout year in 2007, Jackson is hesitant to label his season in such a manner, preferring to call it his arrival.
"I don't consider it a breakout year," he said of his success in Tampa last season. "I just consider last year showing people that was the real me, the way that I'm capable of playing and the way I'm going to continue to play. I had my ups and downs in Charleston but I think that had a lot to do with the mental side.
"I think I was trying [too hard] to prove to them - they had a lot of expectations for me and I had a lot more expectations on myself than they had for me - and I wasn't living up to those expectations. I think it started to wear on me physically and mentally.
"I went through many batting stances, we did all kinds of different drills, and then when I got to Tampa is was like soft toss, see ball, hit ball, relax, and slow the game down. I watched a lot of ARod film. When I see him get into the box he slows the game down. Everything he does is slow, he's not rushed and he does a lot of heavy breathing just to relax. That's what I try to take into the game and that's what I did when I got to Tampa.
"I slowed the game down and let the game come to me. The game is hard enough without thinking 'I've got to stay up the middle'. Just see the ball and hit the ball, that's all you've got to do. It's too hard thinking about other stuff.
"I definitely think I can be better. I think I can play like that the whole year."
Batting and Power. Prior to his time in Tampa last season Jackson had a tendency to cheat a bit by drifting forward in his stance rather than staying back and allowing his great hands and tremendous bat speed to catch up to pitches, flaws he corrected in the Florida State League. He has natural patience at the plate and his new calm approach, one that allows him to stay back longer, has also given him better pitch recognition. Throw in the fact he has improved his ability to make adjustments quicker, he has started to develop into the plus hitter most scouts believed he could become. His home run power is still predominantly to the pull-side but he has shown an ability to drive gappers to the opposite field more, further evidence of his of his hitting ability.
Base Running and Speed. Jackson has averaged better than 30 stolen bases and nearly a 77 percent success rate over his first two full professional seasons, mostly due to his tremendous athleticism. He still has some work to do learning the nuances of reading pitchers' moves better to become an even better base stealer, but the raw package is very exciting.
Defense. Jackson was always a better defensive centerfielder than he was reputed to be by some and he refined his game even more last season but cutting out the mental errors on routine plays. He covers a lot of terrain with his long strides and he has a strong enough arm to play either centerfield or left field at the big league level. He could benefit from more consistent positioning in the outfield but he is already advanced enough to be a Gold Glove caliber defensive outfielder.
Projection. Jackson spent the better part of his first two seasons as a raw athlete learning to become a professional baseball player and that started to happen in the second-half of the 2007 season as he learned to slow the game down. Even though everybody knew he wouldn't hit there eventually, batting leadoff in the early part of his career helped him get more at-bats and that has proven to be priceless in his development. His power potential and propensity to strike out projected him to hit somewhere around sixth or seventh in a big league lineup, cut in the mold as a Torii Hunter type, but his extended success in the Florida State League now has some scouts envisioning Curtis Granderson-like production someday.
ETA. 2009. Jackson sped up his ETA by a full season with his tremendous performance in Tampa last season. He should open up the 2008 in Double-A Trenton and a late season call-up to Triple-A is not out of the question. He should be ready for the Bronx at some point the following year.