With Brett Gardner shelved until at least mid-August with a broken thumb, the Yankees will need another outfielder. They do have three players on the active roster — Cody Ransom, Eric Hinske, and Hideki Matsui — to spell their three starters, but each is questionable enough defensively to merit an alternative solution. Foremost among the concerns is that it would force Johnny Damon or Nick Swisher into center field to give Melky Cabrera a rest, an option the Yankees don’t seem comfortable with, and rightly so. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many alternatives to back up Melky in center.
Every mildly curious Yankees fan has pondered the option of promoting Austin Jackson from AAA Scranton to temporarily fill in. He’s one of the Yankees most promising prospects, and he’s one of the few players in the system who could play center field in the majors. It’s understandable that fans would want to see him get a shot in the majors, especially considering his successful season so far: .311/.375/.429 with 17 steals in 19 attempts.
The rules also favor the Yankees. By adding Jackson to the 40-man roster the Yankees will start his service time clock, but that’s of little concern at this point in the season. The more pressing concern is the use of a minor league option. There wouldn’t seem to be room on the roster for Jackson once Gardner returns, so they would have to burn an option by returning him to Scranton. But Gardner’s best case return time is 25 days, which would be August 19. Rosters expand on September 1, so if the Yankees optioned Jackson then he’d be in the minors for fewer than 20 days. Thus, the option would not be used.
(The Yankees did this with Brian Bruney in 2007, though they recalled him before rosters expanded. He went down on August 7 when Joba came up, and was recalled a bit later in the month. But because he wasn’t in the minors for 20 days the Yankees did not burn an option.)
The problem with adding Jackson is that they’d have to play him nearly every day. Is that something they should be committed to at this point? There is a little over two months left in the season and the AL East is anything but decided. Committing to Jackson might mean putting a black hole in the nine spot regularly. Since they’ll be playing against other American League teams, they need not hamper themselves with a pitcher’s spot — and worse on days that Jose Molina plays.
Not playing Jackson would be a complete waste. He’d be better off getting regular at bats in Scranton, and the team wouldn’t be that much better with him in reserve. They could always option him if the experiment failed, but then they would not only possibly trigger an option year, depending on when they pull the plug, but would also have to clear another 40-man spot to add a replacement outfielder. Those are considerably costs, and perhaps ones the Yankees should not be willing to risk.
There are legitimate concerns about Jackson’s ability to handle major league pitching right now. Two major points of debate over Jackson are his strikeouts and his batting average on balls in play. Of the former, he has 89 strikeouts in 347 at bats this season. How will he handle major league pitchers if AAA pitchers set him down frequently via the swing and miss? Of the latter, his BABIP is .407, which he certainly will not be able to replicate at the big league level. That could cause a massive drop-off in all of his numbers.
Jackson has also struggled lately, as he’s mired in a .167/.244/.194 slump over the past 14 days (not counting Sunday’s 0 for 3 performance). The Yankees did promote Jackson back in 2007 while he was hitting just .260/.336/.374 in Charleston, and he responded by tearing the Florida State League to shreds in the second half, hitting .345/.398/.556 over the final 67 games. But the Yankees can’t expect that to happen again. The expectations for immediate performance, given Jackson’s recent struggles, his general strikeout tendencies, and his high BABIP, would have to be rather low.
Few doubt Austin Jackson’s talent and potential to be a solid major leaguer in the future. He’s handled each promotion since 2007 relatively well, and has continued to perform over the course of the 2009 season. The Yankees might be attracted by the prospect of adding him to their outfield, but there is enough working against the move that they shouldn’t make it at this point. This could mean having to see Johnny Damon in center field once or twice over the next 30 or so days while Melky mans the position full-time. Those costs would seem to be less than those of promoting Austin Jackson and having the experiment fail.
What should the Yankees do, then? There are a few internal options, though few could play a passable center field. It looks like John Rodriguez, Shelley Duncan, Ramiro Pena, or a trade for a player who can man center. In any case, I wouldn’t bet on it being Austin Jackson. As much as I’d love to see the kid in the Bronx, it doesn’t seem like the right move for the Yankees right now.