Opportunity is one of the driving factors that decides when a prospect will really solidify themselves as a Major League regular. Obviously, the prospect then needs to play well given the opportunity, but just getting a chance to be an everyday player is sometimes difficult enough. For the Cardinals' Ryan Jackson, the recent news that Rafael Furcal will undergo surgery and miss the entire 2013 season, has made his path to becoming an everyday player a littler clearer.
Weight: 180 lbs.
DOB: 05/10/1988 (Age 24)
40-man roster: Yes
As a sophomore at the University of Miami, Jackson hit over .360 and was one of the best defensive infielders in the country, putting him close to the top of draft lists entering the 2009 season. Things took a sudden turn though, as he found himself fighting just to keep his average above .250 during his Junior year, and sliding down draft boards in the process. When June rolled around, the Cardinals selected the shortstop in the 5th round. He signed quickly for $157,500, enabling him to head to Batavia in the New York Penn League. The NYPL is the type of league you want to see a big-program college player really excel in, but Jackson hit an abysmal .216/.297/.247 with no home runs in 67 games.
Luckily for the Cardinals (and for Jackson), the results have been much better since his pro debut. Over the last three seasons he has hit at least .272 at every Minor League stop, and made it plausible that he will hit enough to be a useful big league player. Last season, Jackson did hit 10 home runs and 23 doubles last year in the most pitcher-friendly park of the PCL before earning a September call up from the Cardinals.
The Scouting Report
Scouting reports normally start with the player's biggest strength, and for Jackson that is his defense. It has been his calling card since college, and his strong glove work is the characteristic that should allow him to thrive in the big leagues. Curiously, he's not known for being super athletic and he has fringy speed, so Jackson relies on strong instincts and outstanding baseball IQ to make plays. The biggest question about his game remains his bat. Although I previously noted that AutoZone Park is the best pitcher's park in the PCL, he still played in the PCL and didn't even manage to slug over .400. Despite the lack of power, his swing has improved and gained consistency over the last two seasons. Watching video on Jackson, I didn't love how high he starts his hands or the slight bat wrap at the beginning of his swing, but he does a good job getting the barrel into the hitting zone. His bat still has plenty of doubters, though after last season, one scout had this to say about him:
"Ryan had a solid offensive season, hitting for average and getting on base... He's shown occasional power, as well. While I don't think he's going to be a huge bat guy, I don't see him being a liability in the lineup and think he'll continue to be a better hitter than most people expect."
What's Stopping Him From Contributing Now?
Ronny Cedeno and Pete Kozma are his main completion for playing time, and I think they will be enough to relegate Jackson to Memphis to start the season. It sounds like the Cardinals feel that Cedeno is more of a utility player (an astute observation by the way), and they are prepared to open the season with Kozma, who really excelled down the stretch last season. When asked about Daniel Descalso possibly moving over to fill in for Furcal, or a trade for a new shortstop, GM John Mozeliak had this to say:
"The way we look at it right now it is certainly going to be a competition between Kozma and Cedeno but there's no doubt that given what Kozma did for us in the last six weeks of the season last year that we so have a high level on confidence that he can continue to do that."
Despite the vocal support from the front office, I think Jackson gets an opportunity to take the job from Kozma at some point this season. St. Louis should be in contention for a playoff position this year, and if Kozma's ZiPS projection (.226/.284./.328) is even close to correct, they simply will need more production from the position.
What Should We Expect When He Arrives?
When Jackson does arrive, he may still be used in a utility role. St. Louis is one of the more creative teams as far as moving players around, and I think Jackson could see a handful of at bats at both middle infield spots before he is an everyday player. That may be good for him, because it will take him time to find success against the pitching at the highest level. Best case scenario is Jackson does what Kozma did last fall, and catches fire hitting for an empty average in a short spurt. In that way, he may have value to those of you in NL-only leagues immediately. Ironically (in that it's not ironic at all), that's is exactly what fellow Fake Teams' writer Zack Smith had to say about the Cardinals' SS situation earlier this week.
The motivation for this article came from hearing Jackson's name thrown around as a potential "sleeper" in light of the recent Furcal news. I just can't imagine a league where Jackson will have much, if any, value for 2013. Even if he does manage to take the job from Kozma, Cedeno, and Descalso, he may still have trouble putting up respectable numbers this season. In the long term, Jackson may in fact have a decent career as a Major League shortstop, mostly because replacement level at the position is terribly low right now. Could he have one or two fantasy seasons as a top-15 shortstop? Absolutely, he could, but I think that's the ceiling, sort of in the Jack Wilson mold. Remember that he will always be a much better real baseball player than a fantasy baseball player, and let someone else take Jackson in your keeper or dynasty league this year.
And just for fun, here's a video of Jackson hitting a grand slam last year in Memphis:
For more notes on Jackson and all the St. Louis Cardinals, be sure to check out Viva El Birdos.
You can check my other writing at Fantasy Ninjas.