More than a year ago, shortstop and Cardinals fifth-round pick Ryan Jackson was starting to match his offensive production with his defensive reputation at Class AA Springfield. For the weekly Minor League Insider, I started to calling around to get more info on Jackson's awakening at the plate.
I heard a lot about his defense.
One phrase stood out to me.
"He's a baseball rat," a former coach said.
He meant it as a compliment.
Jackson, 24, is set to join the Cardinals' major-league roster this evening in Philadelphia. He'll be added to the 40-man roster today and he could make his big-league debut as early as tonight. He is widely considered one of the Cardinals' top 20 prospects entering this season. The words that come up often in the descriptions of his potential and his play in the field are "instinctual" and "nimble." I wrote in one report that he has a "high baseball IQ" -- a quote that came from a scout. In short, he's a baseball rat, a twist on the "gym rat" name given to the basketball players who are always found taking shots in the gym, long after the lights go out. Jackson, the coach explained, was that kind of fielder. He was there on the field, gobbling grounders, after the workouts were over and while the grounds crew waited to rake.
Here are some of the scouting reports on Jackson.
John Sickels' Minor League Baseball ranked Jackson 15th in the Cardinals' system, graded him as an above average prospect, and wrote:
15) Ryan Jackson, SS, Grade C+: Scouts have always been impressed with his glove, but he is starting to show something with the bat now, showing more pop. A larger-scale breakthrough is plausible.
Kevin Goldstein, the respected prospect specialist at Baseball Prospectus, ranked Jackson No. 11 in the Cardinals system for his annual Top 11 (published here in February). He wrote:
The glove-first shortstop showed some signs of life at the plate in his first season at the upper levels.
The Good: While Jackson is not a fast player, he's very quick; he has outstanding instincts and reactions at shortstop to go with soft hands, a plus arm, and outstanding actions. He's an instinctual hitter who waits for his pitch, has a decent feel for contact, and gap power.
The Bad: Jackson's numbers always look better due to his ability to hit left-handers hard; his platoon splits are a bit troubling. He can't afford to lose a step because he'll have little big-league value if he can't play on the left side of the field.
Ephemera: Jackson hit at least .323 in three different months of the 2011 season, but he hit just .208 in May and August combined.
Perfect World Projection: He could be an everyday shortstop, with the floor of a nice utility player.
Jonathan Mayo, the top voice on prospects over at MiLB.com, ranked Jackson 17th overall in the system coming into this season. He described Jackson in this way:
When Jackson was taken out of Miami back in 2009, he had a reputation as a slick-fielding shortstop who had some shortcomings with the bat. He still has those impressive defensive skills, but he’s been more productive offensively than some anticipated. He showed some extra-base pop in Double-A in 2011 and has a solid approach at the plate. In the Arizona Fall Leauge, he played all over the infield in the event he’s needed to play a utility role, but there’s still a chance for him to become an everyday shortstop at the big league level.
And, finally, in the Baseball America Prospect Handbook, a project that I work on each season with the editors at BA, Jackson was No. 13 on the list of the Cardinals' top prospects. Here is part of his entry from the book:
When major-league infielder Nick Punto visited Double-A Springfield on a rehab assignment he saw one hitch in Jackson’s fielding: hesitation. Jackson had a habit of pausing to wait on a better hop – an approach that works fine in college, but is too slow at higher levels. Punto worked with Jackson because Jackson his headed to those higher levels. The shortstop validated is reputation as a nimble fielder with a high baseball IQ and strong instincts. His footwork and accuracy give him an above-average arm, and improvement in the field have some believing he can handle that position in the majors. The bat has become less of a question. Jackson has a disciplined approach and improved his ability to make sharper, harder contact this season. He maintained his strength this season and a swing that found that gaps. His 34 doubles ranked second in the Texas League, and he finished in the top 10 for total bases (221). His season earned him an invite to the Arizona Fall League, where he served as a utility infielder, getting starts around the diamond. He’s expected to advance to Triple-A as the starting shortstop, though his utility turn preps him for the majors, where his initial role could be utility, like Punto’s.