Jackson excited, ready for debut
Rookie center fielder's strong spring has him at ease
KANSAS CITY -- Austin Jackson spent the past few years being compared to Bernie Williams and other past Yankees center fielders. His trade to the Tigers last December immediately put him in comparison with Curtis Granderson. Now, the time for comparisons might finally be over.
Jackson is in the big leagues on his own right. And when reigning Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke makes his first pitch of the 2010 season, it'll be Jackson at the plate.
It won't be long now. It's a goal that helped draw Jackson away from a college scholarship to play basketball. More importantly, it's a goal that helped drive him through offseason workouts once he realized the opportunity he had to break in with Detroit.
Jackson earned his way not only onto the team and into the starting lineup, but into the leadoff spot with his Spring Training performance. For all the questions coming into camp about how Jackson would hit after racking up 123 strikeouts at the Triple-A level last year, his approach was eye-opening. He generally refused to offer a swing at the wrong pitches, especially in the first half of the spring schedule, and he managed to work counts in his favor.
"I don't think it was a difference in my approach," Jackson said. "I think hitting leadoff allows me to play my game."
The Yankees hit him lower with the idea that he's a developing power hitter, which he should eventually be. His game atop the Tigers' lineup is all about reaching base and using his speed.
His work at the plate makes him the proudest of anything he did this spring, he said. At the same time, he showed a comfort level many might not have expected from somebody following in Granderson's footsteps in a Tigers uniform. That was largely by intent; he didn't change much about his routine once he got to camp, even though the opportunity and the change of scenery made it unlike any other Spring Training for him.
"The mentality coming in was to be relaxed: Don't try to come in and do something that you're not capable of doing, because I knew [if I did] I wouldn't be able to play up to my abilities," he said. "I was a lot more comfortable than I thought I was going to be with the trade, and that transition was nice and easy and smooth. Everybody welcomed me. That had a big part to do with it."
Part of that welcome came from manager Jim Leyland well before camp began.
"When I was at TigerFest, I heard Jim Leyland giving a speech," Jackson said, "and he was saying that you have to give this guy a chance to develop, a chance to prove that he can play at that level. When he said that, it just put me at ease a little bit to know that he's not expecting me to come in and be Curtis Granderson. He's looking for me to be myself. That put me at ease a lot."
It was no offense meant to Granderson. In fact, in some ways, Jackson wouldn't mind emulating Granderson with the impact he makes. But he plays a different style of game at a completely different stage in his career, before he has even stepped into a Major League batter's box.
"I really like the way Austin Jackson plays the game. I like the way [Scott] Sizemore plays the game," Leyland said of his two rookies. "I think I'm smart enough to know there are going to be some growing pains. There's going to be some days they don't look too good. But I'm a pretty patient man, contrary to what people think.
"I think, and it probably starts with me, as long as we don't put the expectations too high on them, we'll be all right."
The expectations certainly shouldn't be out of whack Monday against Greinke. Leyland expects it could be a tough challenge for a Major League debut. All he expects is for them not to shy away from it.
"They're going to see some stuff [Monday] they've never seen," Leyland said. "They're going to wonder, 'What the heck did I get myself into?' And in a good way, because they're going to compete their tails off.
"I don't mean that they're not going to do good. I don't know how they're going to do. But they're going to see some stuff. And I think they're looking forward to it."
Jackson, who will have some family at the ballpark for the game, is eager for it. He didn't plan on overanalyzing Greinke. He just wants to get in the box.
"You can hear what people say," Jackson said, "but until you see it yourself, you really don't know how it is."
He's ready to find out.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.