When the Orioles traded for shortstop Drew Jackson, the 13th selection in December’s Rule 5 pick, for international bonus money, it was the type of move a club in their position should have made. With Jonathan Villar likely to play second base, they had no in-house answer at shortstop. Jackson was a fifth round pick in 2015 who finally put together his offensive game last season; he immediately became Baltimore’s #25 prospect.
Unfortunately for Jackson, the Orioles used the first pick in the Rule 5 pick to select Richie Martin, a former first round pick whose glove is certainly ready for the majors. Buzz grew that Martin could be the O’s shortstop of the future and his performance with the bat and glove this spring has only intensified the excitement. This leaves Jackson as somewhat of a forgotten man. Like Martin, he needs to stay on the 25 man roster all season or else be sent back to the Phillies. But he is fast, plays good defense, and finally found his offensive stroke last season. He is a player worth holding on to.
Jackson played college ball at Stanford and struggled offensively during his first two seasons, batting a combined .184. His abilities at the plate caught up with his already sound defense during his junior year and he was drafted in the fifth round by the Mariners in 2015. He was traded to the Dodgers after the 2016 season and was eventually ranked in the top 20 of what is usually a solid Los Angeles farm system.
Jackson’s 2017 scouting report on MLB.com that ranked him as the #17 prospect in the Dodgers’ system praises his defense. He “shouldn’t have trouble sticking at shortstop, where he profiles as an above-average defender with soft hands, good range and an absolute cannon for an arm that earns him a 70 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale.” Fangraphs’ profile of Jackson’s defense was slightly more bearish, saying that he has “plus-plus arm and average defensive hands and actions at shortstop.” Either way, it is clear that Jackson’s defense is his strength.
In addition to being a good fielder, he is also a versatile fielder. He was drafted as a shortstop and that remains his primary position. But he has also played second base, third base, and center field throughout the four seasons he has spent in professional ball. Brandon Hyde seems to value players who can play multiple positions and Jackson has taken note of that, telling Roch Kubatko, “I think the more positions you have under your belt, the easier it makes decisions for Hyde and the coaching staff because you can fill in wherever.”
Jackson is similar to Richie Martin in that their offensive games have been inconsistent or subpar. Like other hitters who come out of Stanford, Jackson’s approach was focused on making weak contact and hitting the ball the other way. This carried to the professional level. In his first full season, 2016, he hit six home runs and slugged .345.
The Dodgers acquired him following that season and added more loft to his swing. His ground ball rate dropped from 55% in 2016 to 40% last season. After posting average numbers in 2017 (.247/.358/.402), he showed some signs of life last season at AA. After hitting nine home runs in 2017, he upped that total to 15. His average rose slightly to a pedestrian .251, but the increased power bumped his OPS up to an impressive .804. That is seemingly a direct result of him putting the ball in the air more.
Jackson has always gotten on base at an impressive rate (.360 in his professional career) and that continued last season (.356). His on-base skills are even more of an asset when considering his speed. MLB.com rates his speed as 65 on the 20-80 scale and that has led to some impressive stolen base totals. He swiped 21 and 22 the last two seasons respectively. His career success rate is 80%, which is well over the MLB average. His speed and increased power made him a 15-20 player last season. That, combined with his already solid defense, is what led to him being the 13th player selected in the most recent Rule 5 draft.
What path does Jackson have to making the roster and sticking with the Orioles? On Rule 5 day, it was said that both players would compete for the shortstop job. That is a long shot now for Jackson, thanks to Martin’s spring explosion (and #1 Rule 5 draft pick status) and the signing of Alcides Escobar. We are looking at a potential utility role for Jackson, which has been confirmed by Hyde moving him all over the field in Grapefruit League action. Constantly grabbing different gloves hasn’t negatively impacted his bat. He is batting .350/.391/.400 in 23 spring plate appearances.
Projecting who will be the utility player on a team that is projected to finish in last place typically isn’t exciting. But the 2019 Orioles are all about the future, and that applies to Drew Jackson. The Orioles will need to decide if Jackson’s potential is worth carrying him all season so that he can play a role on their next competitive club.
In our Mark Brown’s Opening Day roster projections that are just as good as anybody else’s at this stage in spring, he has Jackson making the club. His main competition for the role appears to be Jace Peterson and Stevie Wilkerson. While Peterson’s versatility and speed can make him a solid 25th piece on a contending team, we know what his career role will be: a utility man. It would be very disappointing if he makes the 2019 Orioles.
Wilkerson is not as easily dismissed because he is young and has some upside, something the Orioles should see as precious at this point. At 27 years old, he is quickly losing his “prospect” status. While he is versatile and has posted some solid batting averages in his minor league career (.305 in 2017), there are many red flags. His game doesn’t include power (he has never hit more than eight home runs in a season) or speed (nine stolen bases total in the last two seasons). Judging players on limited spring stats isn’t fair, but it is worth noting that Wilkerson has accumulated an awful .394 OPS so far. If this comes down to a competition between Jackson and Wilkerson, Jackson should win.
There may not be room for Escobar, Martin, and Jackson on the 25 man roster, and Martin is definitely ahead of Jackson in the pecking order. Jackson needs to hope that Martin gets the nod at shortstop so that he can serve as utility man. We’ve been burned by many Rule 5 players in the past, and it is very possible that Drew Jackson can turn out that way. But the O’s are in a position where they need to latch on to any promise of talent, and Jackson has that.