Braves have legit power-hitting prospect in Jackson

When the Braves traded a couple of decent pitching prospects to the Mariners for outfielder Alex Jackson in late November, many observers wondered why. What did the Braves see in Jackson, a 2014 first-round draft pick whose prospect status had fallen sharply since he posted a .753 OPS over parts of three minor league seasons, and hit .243 with 103 strikeouts in 333 at-bats in Single-A ball in 2016?

Alex Jackson was a three-time prep All-American in San Diego. (AP file photo)

Well, what the Braves saw was a big, strong kid who had, as Chipper Jones said after watching Jackson one morning on a backfield this spring, “light-tower power.” And they saw a guy who had perhaps struggled because he was miscast as an outfielder in the minors and spent too much mental energy on learning that new position.

What if, the Braves thought, we move him back to catcher, a position of need in the Braves minor league system, and the position where Jackson excelled ? After all, the burly Jackson was highly regarded as a catcher in high school, a three-time prep All-American at Rancho Bernardo in San Diego.

 

And while it’s too early to judge, so far that is looking like an astute trade by Braves GM John Coppolella and president of baseball operations John Hart, and one that could have long-range impact for a team low on both catching and power-hitting prospects.

Jackson, still just 21 years old, went 3-for-6 Wednesday and hit his seventh home run of the season for the high-A Florida Fire Frogs, tying him for the overall minor league home-run lead. The sturdily built Californian is hitting .338 with a .364 OBP, .676 slugging percentage and 16 RBIs through 18 games while splitting the catching and DH duties with Jonathan Morales, another catching prospect the Braves are high on.

“Jackson’s off to a good start,” Hart said. “It’s not like we’re taking a guy and converting him who’d never caught before. He caught his whole life, and then when he got drafted so high and (the Mariners) thought, let’s just put him in the outfield and get to the big leagues in a hurry. But we’re going to take our time; I think this guy is showing some aptitude behind the plate. He’s not perfect, but he’s showing he’s got a plus arm – really, it’s an above-average arm. And he moves well back there. I just think he’s going to need to get reps.

“I think the bat’s going to play (at the big-league level). Maybe it’s not the bat that they wanted at (No. 6 overall selection in draft), but if it’s a catcher, it’s a real bat. Because the power is real.”

At that point I mentioned to Hart what Chipper had said at spring training after watching Jackson hit some bombs on a backfield. The “light-tower power” comment.

Hart nodded at the description and repeated, “The power’s real. And he’s a good enough hitter that he can get to his power. But as a catcher it’s not like the bat has to carry you. So when he’s not catching (at Florida) he’s going to DH, same as Morales. So these guys are going to get their at-bats this year and we’ll see where the catching goes. We’ll see if it (Jackson at catcher) continues to progress. From what we’ve seen to this point, we’re pleased with where it is.”

When I asked Hart how big Jackson is, he replied, “6-2, probably 220. Strong. He’s got the strongest grip strength in the organization, by far. He’s a strong, physical kid. He’s what a catcher looks like – big, strong, physical kid.”

Morales caught and also played some second base Tuesday. He turned 22 in January and has hit .286 with a home run and .693 OPS in 17 games in his first season in high-A ball, after hitting .269 with four homers and 55 RBIs at low-A Rome last season and getting praise for his handling of an extremely talented Rome pitching staff.

“Jackson’s splitting (catching duties) with Morales, because we think Morales is a prospect, too,” Hart said. “He’s a good (receiver), a good leader — he caught in Puerto Rico and they won the Caribbean World Series. I mean, this is a guy we like as well. We’re fortunate that we have two catchers that that we like.”

And fortunate that one of them is a former first-round draft pick with “light-tower power” who was acquired for a relatively small price. Since the Braves were so deep in pitching prospects, neither Rob Whalen nor Max Povse, the two right-handers they sent to the Mariners for Jackson, figured prominently in the Braves’ future.

Whalen, 23, went 1-2 with a 6.57 ERA in five major league starts for the Braves in 2016, but hasn’t pitched yet this year after opening season on disabled list with a strained calf. Povse is off to a great start for the Mariners’ Double-A affiliate, going 3-1 with a 1.82 ERA and .0973 WHIP through four starts, but it should be noted he’s 23 and in his second season at Double-A.

So why was Jackson available? The Mariners invested a $4.2 million signing bonus after taking him with No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 draft. But after he hit .280 with an .820 OPS in 24 games of rookie ball in 2014 and climbing to No. 20 overall prospect status in Baseball America’s Top 100 prior to the 2015 season, his stock fell after he hit .207 with eight homers and a .683 OPS in 2015 in low-A and Single-A.

He’s back at catcher now in a new organization, and so far Jackson is suddenly looking a lot like a guy worthy of being a high-first-round draft selection.

• When in Queens, got to tip the proverbial cap to the mighty Ramones, who were from the neighborhood. Check out this live version of Blitzkrieg Bop. Greatness.

“BLITZKRIEG BOP” by the Ramones

Hey ho, let’s go! hey ho, let’s go!
Hey ho, let’s go! hey ho, let’s go!

They’re forming in straight line
They’re going through a tight wind
The kids are losing their minds
The blitzkrieg bop

They’re piling in the back seat
They’re generating steam heat
Pulsating to the back beat
The blitzkrieg bop

Hey ho, let’s go
Shoot’em in the back now
What they want, I don’t know
They’re all revved up and ready to go

They’re forming in straight line
They’re going through a tight wind
The kids are losing their minds
The blitzkrieg bop

They’re piling in the back seat
They’re generating steam heat
Pulsating to the back beat
The blitzkrieg bop

Hey ho, let’s go
Shoot’em in the back now
What they want, I don’t know
They’re all revved up and ready to go

They’re forming in straight line
They’re going through a tight wind
The kids are losing their minds
The blitzkrieg bop

They’re piling in the back seat
They’re generating steam heat
Pulsating to the back beat
The blitzkrieg bop

Hey ho, let’s go! hey ho, let’s go!
Hey ho, let’s go! hey ho, let’s go!


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