DETROIT -- Give it to Austin Jackson: He isn't setting his goals low. In fact, he's setting them pretty fast.
To Tigers fans at the North American International Auto Show, Jackson might have raised some eyebrows on the team's Winter Caravan stop two weeks ago, when he answered a question from a fan on his goals for 2011. His answer was 40 stolen bases.
"I said it," he admitted to MLB.com this week. "I think it's just setting a goal to try to reach it, because I think I'm capable of stealing more bags. I think I need to try harder at it."
He wouldn't have set it if he didn't believe he could do it. But he also isn't naive enough to believe it won't take some work.
If he can pull it off, it would put him in quite an exclusive club, both for his city and his manager. Just two Tigers in the Comerica Park era have swiped 40 bases; Alex Sanchez stole 44 on the offensively-challenged club of 2003, and Roger Cedeno had 55 two years earlier.
Since Jim Leyland took over managerial duties in 2006, no Tiger has stolen so much as 30. Jackson's 27 steals last year, in fact, mark the highest total of the Leyland era in Detroit. Leyland's previous stops in Florida and Pittsburgh yielded two 40-steal players. Edgar Renteria piled up 41 on the 1998 team that lost 108 games. Barry Bonds stole 52 bases for the National League East champions in 1990 and 43 the following year.
The Tigers haven't shown a major inclination to become more of a running team in recent years. They've long wanted to become a smarter baserunning team, more aggressive advancing bases on base hits, but not necessarily more aggressive stealing them.
Especially with reigning Major League RBI champion Miguel Cabrera batting cleanup, they haven't had much of a need for it up top. If they can get runners on base when Cabrera steps to the plate, they'll generally be happy. A more anemic offense overall, or a less powerful hitter in the middle of the order, might create more of a need to run.
Still, there are factors that make it a bad idea to rule out Jackson so quickly, from a year of experience in the big leagues to a knowledge of what he needs to do to improve as a leadoff hitter. Add to that the solid work ethic that pushes him, a stronger motivation than many might have thought before seeing him surprise the rest of baseball in 2010.
He was never a leadoff hitter before last year, but now that he is, he wants to develop his game like one. And the Tigers, having seen Jackson's speed in abundance in center field, have a skill they think they can develop on the offensive end.
"I think it's more of something that I have," he said. "I have speed and that's a part of my game, and I definitely think that I could use it more on the basepaths. It's really just stealing a bag, maybe getting in scoring position a little more, try to score some more runs. I think it's a thing you just have to kind of learn. I think it's a thing I need."
Jackson's total last year was nothing to dismiss, especially for a rookie. It was the best total by a Tigers rookie since Milt Cuyler stole 41 in 1991. The fact that he was so efficient at it, having been caught just six times, was all the more impressive.
Sometimes, though, efficiency can be a product of rookie reluctance to make mistakes, and thus take fewer chances. Jackson's predecessor, Curtis Granderson, went through something similar in his first years in the league, leading to then-baserunning coach Andy Van Slyke to talk to him about his approach. Jackson had a green light, could've run more, and believes he had more chances that he missed, either not reading a pitcher in time or by hesitating to make an out.
Jackson took mental notes watching such American League speedsters as Carl Crawford and Juan Pierre last year, and he sees his own need to be more aggressive.
"They pretty much get good jumps being good athletes," Jackson said. "They get good jumps and good breaks. A lot of times, they're not afraid to get thrown out. They feel they get a good jump, and when they get a good jump on a pitcher, whatever happens, happens. They're not afraid."
As well as he hit last year, he might give himself more opportunities by simply making more contact. Out of his 181 hits were 34 doubles, 10 triples and four home runs, leaving 133 singles. With his speed, a cutdown on his league-leading strikeout total would logically result in more balls put in play. With his speed, he has the chance to turn some of those into singles, putting him on first base.
The Tigers do not have a second hitter determined quite yet. It could be a line-drive power hitter like Ryan Raburn, or it could a more traditional second hitter like Will Rhymes if he ends up starting. It will not be a proven second hitter like Jackson had last year in Johnny Damon, who is skilled in advancing runners.
If Jackson can advance himself, he can lighten some of that burden. He knows pitchers will be ready for him, but he believes his learning curve has him ready for them.
"I think I pretty much have a good idea what pitchers are trying to do when I'm on the basepaths," he said. "I try to pay close attention to that. When guys know that you have speed, they're quicker to the plate. And at the Major League level, every catcher has a good arm. If they know you're the guy that steals on the team, they'll approach you a little."
Jackson likes that kind of attention. And he thinks he can run his way through it. Maybe even 40 times.
"I think it's just a little mental adjustment," he said. "I think that I can steal some bases. If you look at my total last year, I think that shows I can steal some bases."