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May 12, 2010

On the Beat

A Tiger of a New Stripe

by John Perrotto

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One thing is certain about Jim Leyland: When the Tigers' manager says he doesn't want to talk about a subject, he winds up talking about it. The subject of Tigers rookie center fielder and leadoff hitter Austin Jackson was broached to Leyland recently. His first response was to downplay the exploits of the 23-year-old, who was acquired from the Yankees as a part of a three-way trade at December's winter meetings that also included the Diamondbacks. The Tigers not only acquired Jackson but asked him to fill the big shoes of Curtis Granderson, an All-Star and one of the game's top personalities, who was sent to the Yankees in the deal.

"I don't like to talk too much about rookies," Leyland said. "I don't like to blow them up too big in the media when they're doing well and I don't like to talk them down when they're struggling. It's tough enough for a young kid to break into the major leagues and get his feet on the ground. He doesn't need his manager talking about him in the papers to add any extra pressure."

However, when the subject came back around to Jackson a little later in the interview, Leyland had to sing the praises of a guy who is hitting .360/.408/.493 in the first 143 plate appearances of his career with a .321 TAv.

"He's done a good job," Leyland said. "It's tough to ask a young kid to come in and be the leadoff hitter, but he's doing great. The thing that struck me from the first day of spring training is that he came into camp really hungry. He wanted to show everyone that he was ready to play in the major leagues. He wanted to prove that he could help our team. You couldn't help be impressed by him and he's done nothing differently since the season started."

From a statistical standpoint, Jackson has had an odd first six weeks in the major leagues. Seemingly every ball he is putting in play is dropping as he has an otherworldly .500 BABIP that has helped him to a American League-leading 49 hits but figures to take a big regression to the mean. He has also struck out an league-leading 39 times while drawing 11 walks, something that doesn't lead to a high batting average or OBP.

While all the indicators are there for Jackson's batting average to take a big tumble, the Tigers believe he is a quality hitter. They were most impressed that Jackson was able to overcome a start that would have buried many young players, as he struck out 32 times in his first 19 games. Since then, he has seven strikeouts in 13 games.

"The thing that I really like about Austin is that he doesn't let anything defeat him," Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said. "Even though he was striking out, he never got down, never had that look on his face that said he thought he was overmatched. That's important because strikeouts can demoralize a young hitter, but he's learned from them and really has them under control now."

Jackson has also proven to be more than able to handle the defensive responsibilities of being a major-league center fielder. He ranks ninth among all AL players with 13 FRAR.

"I might be going out on a limb by saying this but I don't think I am when I say Austin will be the best defensive center fielder in the league by the end of the season," McClendon said. "He's so smooth. He just glides to balls and he gets to everything."

Jackson, for his part, hasn't been overwhelmed by anything that has been thrown his way so far. He is confident without being cocky, someone who is used to the spotlight, as Baseball America ranked him as the best 12-year-old and 15-year-old player in the country while he was growing up in Denton, Texas. Jackson was also one of the top high school point guards in the nation and was recruited by most of the college basketball powers before accepting a scholarship to Georgia Tech, which he passed up when the Yankees chose him in the eighth round of the 2005 draft and gave him an $800,000 signing bonus.

"I've tried to not to put too much pressure on myself because it's basically the same game I've been playing since I was a little kid," Jackson said. "I've had some ups and downs so far, but I'm sure every rookie does. The speed of the game can be a little intimidating at times but I feel I'm adjusting. It's been a lot of fun being, really, and everything I thought it would be."

---

Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez's job is safe for now. So says the man who nearly fired Gonzalez at the end of last season, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria. However, Loria also did not give Gonzalez a ringing endorsement with the Marlins off to a 16-17 start.

"The team is better than that," Loria said. "They know they're not playing up to their ability and I have no worries whatsoever."

The heat is clearly on Gonzalez, though. Loria had a dalliance with ESPN broadcaster and former major-league manager Bobby Valentine at the end of last season before deciding to retain Gonzalez. In spring training, Loria said he expected the Marlins to make the playoffs this season.

Gonzalez is most frustrated by the Marlins' defensive play, as they rank 16th in the major leagues with a .692 defensive efficiency. The Marlins finished 29th, 13th, and 23rd in that category in Gonzalez's first three seasons as manager.

"In my four-year tenure here, we have not made the strides that we've wanted to," Gonzalez said. "Things like throwing to the wrong base. The careless errors are really the ones that really drive you crazy. It feels like it takes a chunk out of your heart."

---

Almost lost in the furor of whether or not Ken Griffey Jr. literally got caught napping in the Mariners' clubhouse last Saturday is that the club changed hitting coaches over the weekend in an effort to get out of their offensive doldrums. Triple-A Tacoma hitting coach Alonzo Powell was promoted to replace Alan Cockrell. The Mariners are 29th in the majors in runs scored with an average of 3.3 runs per game.

The irony of the situation is that Powell and Cockrell came up through the Giants' farm system as players and became very close friends. That made the promotion a less-than-joyous occasion for Powell, who found fame in Japan by becoming a batting champion.

"You never want to see anybody fired like this," Powell said. "He's a good friend, but this is baseball. Wak (manager Don Wakamatsu) told me to do what I can to get the guys back on track. If there was any easy answer, it would have been done a long time ago. But there is plenty of time left in the season to turn it around here."

General manager Jack Zduriencik would not deny that he was sending a message to the hitters that things need to vastly improve soon. The Mariners are just 13-19 after being the trendy pre-season pick to win the AL West.

"Sometimes it helps to hear the same message from a different messenger," Zduriencik said.

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MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Cubs haven't been able to find any relief help on the trade market and are considering promoting Casey Coleman and Jay Jackson from the Triple-A Iowa rotation to work out of the bullpen while also closely watching three other pitchers with their top farm club: Thomas Diamond, Jeff Samardzija, and Jeff Stevens. … The Diamondbacks are looking to trade for a reliever. … Royals manager Trey Hillman's job security is starting to come into question with his team off to a 11-22 start. … The Dodgers' Joe Torre denies talk that he will leave at the end of this season when his contract expires and explore managerial opportunities elsewhere. … If left-hander Oliver Perez has another bad start Friday night at Florida, he will likely be removed from the rotation and replaced by reliever Hisanori Takahashi or Triple-A Buffalo knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. … Giants GM Brian Sabean has doused any speculation of an imminent recall of Buster Posey from Triple-A Fresno by saying the catching prospect is not ready for the major leagues.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Austin Jackson,  The Who

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