I originally wrote the following post and published it on Cardinal70.com at the following link: Ryan Jackson and Ozzie Smith..? It was written during Winter Warm-Up, but it seems relevant now considering Jackson’s recent call-up. A quick note…during the post, I discuss Jackson’s defensive numbers. My comments should in no way be seen as a criticism of Jackson’s defensive ability – in fact, many feel his glove may be his best asset – but rather a clumsy attempt to separate him from the image of “Ozzie Smith”. Enjoy!
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The St. Louis Cardinals have recently found success in drafting or trading for prospects and eventually turning them into Big League success stories. Albert Pujols. Yadier Molina. Adam Wainwright. Jaime Garcia. David Freese. Allen Craig. The list continues to grow, as does the Cardinals gradually improving farm system. It’s seen catchers and pitchers, first baseman and second baseman, third baseman and closers, and a bevy of outfielders graduate from “Cardinals U” and go on to bigger and better things with the Redbirds.
But one thing that much-improved farm system has yet to produce is a viable shortstop.
For a while, many thought Brendan Ryan might be the answer. The enigmatic glove man was a defensive “wiz” – if not a full-fledged wizard – but his erratic nature and spotty bat eventually bought him a one-way ticket to Seattle. The Cardinals replaced him by signing the defensively challenged Ryan Theriot. They replaced Theriot mid-season with late acquisition, Rafael Furcal. After signing a 2-year free agent contract this offseason, Furcal brings temporary continuity to an ever-shifting position and projects as the Cardinals much-needed lead-off man.
But what about 2014? How will the Cardinals bring stability to a position that has proven nigh impossible to develop within their own system? Are the Cardinals simply destined to wallow in mediocrity at a key middle infield position? Will Cardinals fans be forced to endure a carousel of oft-injured, free agent shortstops well past their prime?
Not so fast. The answer to the Cardinal Conundrum may be closer than one would think.
In 2011, the Springfield Cardinals – Double A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals – saw one player have an eye-opening year at the plate. Hitting .278 with a .334 OBP and .415 Slugging Percentage, the rising star complemented his season by knocking 11 home runs and 73 RBIs in 533 ABs. The young player’s name…Ryan Jackson. His position…
Saturday morning, Jackson took the podium in the Winter Warm-Up media room and attempted to explain his sudden offensive proficiency.
“The Cardinals have a great player development program,” said Jackson, “Since day one, I’ve been just learning so much from every coach that I’ve worked with…I think it’s just been building up, all the information that I’ve taken in, and I’ve been applying it to myself and just continuing to work and get better.”
But why now? What change in Springfield led to greater consistency and promising production in 2011?
“I’d say I was able to find and focus on an approach that works for me,” Jackson explained. “I think for a young hitter, you kind of don’t know what works for you until you start doing it and get a lot of at-bats.”
Whatever the change, it seems to be working. For the first time in recent memory, the Cardinals have a SS in their system worth noticing. The buzz created by Jackson’s offensive campaign in Springfield has more than a few fans talking…and coaches. And it seems Jackson is listening.
“You know, Springfield was a big year for me…a good year,” he said, pausing briefly to reflect before continuing. “That’s where I first heard some feedback from people, and I thought, ‘hey, I might be able to do something here.’”
Usually, the kind of long-term need associated with the Cardinals shortstop problem, combined with the kind of promising year Jackson put together, results in more than just feedback…it brings expectations…and comparisons. But Jackson swears he’s heard none of it…well…not really, anyway.
“You know, I haven’t heard anything specific. People will talk like, ‘You know, we haven’t really had anyone to talk about here since Ozzie…” (picture a sudden widening of the eyes, two hands up as if fending off some infectious disease) “…and I think, ‘Wow!’ I mean, I’m not trying to be Ozzie…he was great…but just that people think of his name when they’re talking about me…”
He didn’t have to finish his sentence. The sentiment was apparent.
Of course, the comparison to Ozzie is an odd one to apply in Jackson’s case. The young infielder is, so far, no defensive gem. Committing 19 errors in just 135 games, he’s no Wizard. In fact, the Arizona Fall League has apparently been used to try him at various positions around the diamond – shortstop, third base, second base…
“I got to play first base for the first time since T-Ball,” said Jackson. “So that was cool.”
Of course, the musical positions approach is by no means intended to abandon his development at shortstop. Jackson himself seems to be taking it in stride and placing his focus, instead, on simply becoming a “complete player.”
“In baseball, if you think you know it all, it’s going to hit you. So I try to learn everyday and try to get better.”
Fortunately for Jackson, he has time to get better. With Furcal entrenched for the next two seasons, there’s no rush to push a young shortstop fresh off a season at AA…but don’t be surprised to see him turning heads in AAA sooner rather than later. And once that happens…his cup of coffee in The Show may be as close as a simple September call-up and a flight to St. Louis.
A Bit More…
* Jackson did well at the podium, dropping the occasional sound-bytes that have become common among Cardinal prospects, but you could tell he was just a bit frazzled. He seemed genuine, though, and a truly likeable guy. He also quickly granted my request for a brief one-on-one (which is where the Ozzie mention came from).
* During his media time, he made his like of Nick Punto very clear (apparently Punto was more than willing to work with the young infielder): “Punto’s Awesome! I can’t say enough about Punto. He’s a great guy, great teammate…would love to play with him one day.”
* The Cardinals seem fond of packaging their young prospects together in groups for media time. I’m sure this is largely due to efficiency and the significance of the players’ profile being so different from, say, a Chris Carpenter…but I couldn’t help but wonder if it was also a way to offer a bit of protection and comfort for young guys just learning how to deal with major media scrums. Jackson was paired with Jordan Swagerty, and earlier, Lance Lynn, Matt Carpenter, and Tyler Greene appeared as a Memphis trio (of which Lynn seemed to take the role of elder statesman). If I remember correctly, only Zack Cox was left alone…but Tony Cruz was noticeably absent.