One thing we didn't focus enough on this year at Fack Youk was the Yankees' minor league system. Thankfully, there are several great resources in the Yankee blogosphere to fill in those blanks. Part of the plan for the off-season is to take a look at some of better prospects the Yankees have waiting in the wings. Today, we'll start with someone we did check on in periodically throughout the season: Austin Jackson.Jackson is one of the top position player prospects in the Yankee system, and is probably the most Major League ready. Baseball America had him as the Yankees' top prospect entering 2009. The Hardball Times dropped him to ninth following this year, but that's perhaps more a reflection of the depth at the low levels of the Yankee system than it is a knock against AJax.
Jackson spent all of 2009 at Scranton, his first full year at AAA after seeing a single game there in 2007. He followed up on being named the AA Eastern League's Playoff MVP in 2008 by winning the International League's Rookie of the Year award in 2009.
2009 was just Jackson's fourth full season of pro ball. He hit .300/.354/.405 and swiped 24 bags in 28 attempts. The bad news is that Jackson's BB% dropped to a career low 7.4% and his K% jumped to 24.4% after being 21.7% and 22.0% the past two years. His increase in strikeouts did not translate to an increase in power, as Jackson's 2B, HR, SLG, and IsoP were all at three year lows. He also benefited from an unsustainable BABIP of .390
Overall, we should be very excited about Austin Jackson. As a 22 year old, he was quite young for AAA, and he still managed to post impressive numbers. Jackson is considered a "raw" prospect, as he was a major basketball recruit out of high school and didn't devote his full attention to baseball until signing with the Yankees. The gap between each successive level is more cavernous than the one before it, and after handling the low A/high A, and high A/AA transitions with aplomb, Jackson finally met some resistance this year. That might explain the disconcerting changes in his BB and K rates.
As for his BABIP, it certainly is unsustainable. However, Jackson's lack of power (just 4 HRs) and high K% is a recipe for a high BABIP. Add to that his LD% of 21.8%, a career high by a good margin, and his BABIP isn't nearly as flukey as it seems at first glance. Jackson's always fared well on balls in play, with a career BABIP of .361 and never once below .346 in four seasons of professional ball.
Late season indications were that the Yankees intended to leave Jackson in AAA to start 2010, and I think that's the right course of action. Interestingly though, Bill James' 2010 projections have Jackson at .294/.356/.411, better than both Melky Cabrera (.278/.341/.406) and Brett Gardner (.277/.368/.375). I think that's a bit too bullish on Jackson for next year; but then again this is Bill James. For what it's worth Jackson's 2009 numbers project to just a .259/.308/.343 line with just 3 HR, 32 BB and, 131 K according to the minor league equivalency calculator.
Based on his minor league service time, Jackson will need to be added to the 40 man roster this off-season. While I do believe Jackson will see the Bronx at some point in 2010, I don't think he'll break camp with the team. That said, I wouldn't completely rule it out it. There's no telling how the LF/DH situation will play out with Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui being free agents, and I wouldn't be completely shocked if either Cabrera or Gardner is traded this off-season. Regardless of how it all plays out, I expect to see AJax holding down an everyday spot in the Yankee OF come 2011.