Blue Jays prospect Zach Jackson could advance quickly through the system as a high-upside reliever
Drafting and developing bullpen arms is a strategy I see increasing as prices continue to climb on the free agent relief market.
Whereas most top-level pitching prospects exhaust all options as a starter before making a bullpen move, the temptation to fast-track high-velocity arms to the MLB ‘pen at a minimum salary creates a bigger advantage than it once did.
Right-hander Zach Jackson, drafted by the Blue Jays in the summer of 2016, has the potential to follow that path.
Name: Zach Jackson
Position: RHP Age: 22
Height: 6’4” Age: 215 lbs.
Throws: Right Bats: Right
Acquired: 2016 MLB Draft (Round 3)
Jackson pitched three NCAA seasons for the Arkansas Razorbacks, making an impact early. He pitched very well over his first two years (2014, 2015), but saw his ERA jump to 5.09 in his draft year as he made five starts and struggled with control (6.79 walks per nine innings).
Regardless, based on his tools alone, Jackson was billed as a high pick and represented quality value to the Blue Jays in his slot.
In his brief pro debut — spanning 18.2 innings mostly thrown with short-A Vancouver — Jackson continued to show the same profile that he did with Arkansas. In many ways that is encouraging, except for when it comes to his walk totals.
Jackson allowed 12 free passes, good for a BB/9 of 5.8 in the small sample of play, and will need to shrink that number as he begins to pass through the lower-minors.
Thankfully for Jackson, his strikeout ability will carry him, so he does not need to limit walks drastically. His style could still allow for a BB/9 of ~3.5-3.8, but anything higher will continue to create trouble. This will become especially true as he reaches the upper minors, where more mature hitters display much greater patience against velocity.
In the video below, you’ll see the full spectrum with Jackson. When he’s off, his pitches can get wild. When he’s on, he flashes the ability to be a true force in the back end of a big-league bullpen.
The moneymaker with Jackson is his curveball, which is his primary strikeout pitch and quite unique. It has very curveball sharp break, but also comes in very fast. Some pitchers will throw a mid-90s fastball but drop to the mid-80s on their curve to allow for the full break of the pitch, but Jackson’s velocity gap between the two pitches is much closer.
It works brilliantly, though, when it finds the target.
Spotting the fastball will be even more important than spotting the curveball for Jackson, because without a pitch that can consistently hit the zone, hitters will be much less likely to bite on that go-to breaker.
This may come with innings and mechanical adjustments. Jackson does have a busy, max-effort delivery, so it will be worth monitoring to see if the Blue Jays alter that in any way.
The single-A Lansing Lugnuts make a sensible starting point for Jackson in 2017, but given his age and talent, it’s very possible that he advances quickly. If Jackson stays on the bullpen path, there is little standing in his way prospect wise (unlike starters, which Toronto has quickly developed a nice group of). Due to that, keep Jackson on your short list of prospects to watch in 2017
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#21: OF Dwight Smith Jr.